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Debating immigration: Historian takes the "pro" side

Date: May 15, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Archive: Research News

For the past 20 years, the United States has pursued policies to stem the influx of immigrants. But the opposite has happened. Their numbers have increased, and recent census data show that one of every 10 Americans is foreign born.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, says Roger Daniels, UC Charles Phelps Taft Professor of History and co-author of "Debating American Immigration, 1882-Present." Daniels, one of the nation's top scholars on immigration history, takes the pro-immigration side of the debate in the book's first half, titled "Two Cheers for Immigration."

Daniels refutes the arguments that too much immigration is bad because immigrants are an economic burden and take jobs away from native-born poor. "The urban poor of modern America are not competitors for low-paying stoop labor jobs: If immigrants don't take them, they will simply not get done, and the United States will become less and less agriculturally sufficient."

Plus, he argues, immigrants bring economic benefits. Countries such as Germany and Japan are beginning to understand that younger immigrant workers can help counteract the economic strains created by a rapidly aging population.

Even if the economy turns sour, immigration doesn't pose a burden for the U.S. economy, Daniels suggests. Writing before the current market downturn and rise in layoffs, he says that immigrants will simply stop coming if unemployment gets high, just as they did during the Depression. His own paternal grandparents came to the United States during the downturn of the 1890s, returned to their homeland and came back to the United States to stay later in the decade, when the economy improved.

Another common argument that Daniels attacks is the cultural one: that immigrants pose a threat to American culture and the predominance of the English language. These fears have long been a part of history and Daniels shows that even Ben Franklin shared them in 1751. The most-feared immigrant language today is Spanish, yet, according to Daniels, it's a "serious misconception" to equate Spanish with Hispanic immigration. "Most native-born Hispanic Americans speak English well and few are truly fluent in Spanish," he said. In addition, about one-third of young native-born Hispanic Americans are married to people of other cultures.

Plus, he argues, an increasingly multicultural America will be better able to function in a global economy and better positioned to attract and retain the large numbers of highly skilled foreign technicians and venture capitalists.

Daniels' new book is part of the Debating 20th-Century America series published by Rowman & Littlefield ($65 cloth, $17.95 paper). The anti-immigration position is written by Otis L. Graham of University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Roger Daniels also has recently published "American Immigration: A Student Companion," (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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