Immigration: Why it Should Continue in the U.S.

Warren K. Woo

Writer’s comment: At first, I had trouble thinking about a subject which I cared enough about to write about (otherwise, I would procrastinate and have a miserable time) and also was knowledgeable about (being knowledgeable makes the task easier). So I took up my English 1 teacher’s, Ms. Walker’s, offer to discuss topics with us—and finally decided upon immigration, a subject with which I had personal experience and had read much about. (Having someone to give your thoughts that extra push and feedback really helps). Because I cared about immigration, this paper took much longer to polish up than the three days I used to write most of it. Ms. Walker was very accessible with help throughout the whole process. As I wrote, I kept in mind two things: Ms. Walker’s reminder to be descriptive and my strong feelings that America’s democratic and economic health depends on an open immigration policy—a policy which is seriously threatened today. Regarding the need to be descriptive, I “described” abstract claims with examples and statistics. During this time, news headlines flashed with stories about Chinese boatlifts and illegal Mexican workers and the American backlash. In this paper, I react to this backlash.
—Warren K. Woo

Instructor’s comment: After learning that the great majority of my English 1 students (Spring l993) had never used the library for anything but studying, I decided that the most useful way to focus the second half of the course would be to guide them through the process of producing a substantial research argument paper. While I emphasized research, I encouraged them to choose topics that touched their own lives and asked that they include evidence from personal experience or observation in their essays. To get them started, I scheduled a “library day”—a chaotic hour in the Segundo computer classroom, with students simultaneously trying their subject searches on Melvyl, Mags, News, and Current Contents, followed by a brief tour of the library. To keep them going, I created a schedule of strict deadlines for research and writing, with many opportunities for discussions with other students and with me: a two-page argument essay (to test their initial ideas on other readers), a preliminary bibiography of at least fifteen items, including entries from each of the four Melvyl indexes, critiques of three printed sources, a preliminary draft (for group discussion), and a research journal due each week.
         Warren’s essay epitomizes the kind of essay I was hoping my students would produce. He presents a wealth of factual information enlivened by family stories and by a passionate engagement that comes through on every page. Not only does Warren make his readers understand this controversial issue—he makes us care.
—Jayne Walker, English Department

After political security, there is nothing that the Republic needs so much as bone and sinew, for the development of its vast resources . . . we want flesh and blood, men, women, and children, to assist in fulfilling that intention.

—Editorial from the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, published in August 12, 1865—as the re-United States reels back from the divisiveness of the Civil War (Abbott 156)

         When my ancestors, the Chinese of the Pearl River Delta region, came to the U.S. in the 1800s to help build the transcontinental railroad (enabling intracontinental commerce on an unprecedented scale), it was very true that immigrants contributed to America’s economic prosperity. Does this remain true today? Today is a very different time than the aftermath of the Civil War. Or is it? Now, the U.S. is also reeling back from wars, albeit of very different sorts: the Cold War and the latest series of riots in the cities. The U.S. is turning inwards, wanting to rebuild its infrastructure and inner cities. Pre-eminence in various scientific areas and the education of its citizens, who are, by world standards, lagging educationally, are again prime national goals—much as they were following the Civil War. Skills and labor are needed. Although not as powerfully delineated as in a North-South segregation, the American population is still bitterly divided over many issues—one of which is immigration.
         Would immigration aggravate our problems, especially unemployment and social tension, or benefit us, as it did previous to and following the Civil War? Throughout the 1800s, conservative politicians were adamant that immigration would compromise political security; and native Californian miners, laborers, and farmers feared that the Chinese would drain America’s resources and take away jobs. The tragic results of such fears were the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, ending in the execution of two innocent Italian immigrants accused of espionage, and the massacres of Chinese miners in the western states. These early detractors of immigration were proven wrong as America grew from a second-rate nation to the most powerful economy in the world. Today, as reflected in the headlines, calls for immigration restriction have renewed the national debate: Should current levels of immigration continue in the U.S.?
         “How many can America absorb?” is a constant refrain, reflected in poll after poll. A 1990 Roper Organization poll revealed that “nearly half of all Americans believe that the nation accepts too many immigrants and an overwhelming majority opposes bills that would allow even more to enter” (Fulwood A23). A 1992 Business Week/Harris Poll found that 69% of nonblacks “think immigration is . . . bad for this country”; although supposedly hurt more by immigration, only 53% of blacks share this sentiment (Farrell & Mandel 119). Among the concerns shared are job competition, lawlessness, the splintering of society, and the high public costs of welfare payments, bilingual education programs, and other adjustment aid (Lamm vii). The same Business Week/Harris Poll also found that the majority of Americans hold the beliefs that immigrants are mostly poor, will drain public resources and/or compete with Americans for jobs, and will always remain this way by not being able to assimilate into American society.
         Recent events reinforce the public’s perception of the undesirable immigrant. California’s prolonged recession has prompted politicians to respond to public opinion: “What we’re concerned about are the people who come across the border and overload the schools, the hospitals and prisons,” says State Senator William Craven of San Diego County. “My constituency is overwhelmingly in favor of doing something to stop them.” One bill pending in the state legislature would authorize the use of National Guard troops to patrol the Mexican border (Foote 25). But it is immigrants’ lawlessness which stands out in the public eye. A recent upsurge in immigration from Hong Kong was accompanied by gang-related murders in the San Francisco and New York Chinatowns. And in South Central Los Angeles, at variance with media’s focus on black violence following the Rodney King verdict, more than half of the looting (and arrests) was attributed to the immigrant Hispanic community. (Sadly, minority-on-minority violence often goes unnoticed by our community at large.) Such lawlessness also reveals societal fracture caused by immigration—the socioeconomic let-down many immigrants sadly discover. This leads us to question whether immigration may also harm the immigrant, much less the U.S. In other words, is the perceived cultural and language gulf (caused in part by socioeconomic barriers) created by immigration too large for America to overcome?
         A Business Week editorial observes that “the heated public debates over multi-culturalism and bilingual education in public schools reflect a deep [cultural and] social anxiety” (“Immigrants Have Worlds to Offer” 154). As former Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm, a leading immigration opponent, claims, “massive immigration involves serious and profound social and cultural dangers, . . . [a main reason being that immigrants] are not evenly dispersed throughout the country. They settle in a few big cities, and they constitute large proportions of those cities” (Lamm 76). Of course. Like my father, uncles, and aunts who came from Hong Kong in the 1950s, immigrants, not understanding English or American customs, tend to settle where they are comfortable. One really cannot expect an immigrant to settle immediately amongst farmers in Smallville, Kansas. But Lamm believes this situation leads to the formation of immigrant cities, where “ethnic, racial, and religious differences can become such a pathology; they can grow, fester, and eventually splinter a society” (77).
         In my experience, practically all immigrants are able to eventually assimilate and reconcile such differences. My family participates in Chinese New Year festivities with other Chinese, as well as celebrating Christmas with the rest of America. We shop and visit all areas of the Bay Area—we do not shut ourselves off in our own little neighborhoods. The meeting of two cultures enriches our lives, it does not “splinter” us from the rest of society. The first generation also has incentives to assimilate within the big city: “Many aliens hurry to become U.S. citizens so that they can bring relatives here,” notes Gary McNary, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Without that incentive, many aliens might not bother to become citizens—thereby slowing their assimilation into the American mainstream” (Dillin 9). And as my second and third generation cousins graduate from college, find jobs outside the big cities, and marry, they move into the suburbs and, by personal choice, further “assimilate.” The same is true of the current migration of Hispanic professionals from the inner city of Los Angeles to the suburbs of Ventura County.
         But rather than viewing these “cultural-lingual” differences as something to deny, they should be seen as enrichments to our society and lifestyle. Lawrence Fuchs, an immigration expert, points out that America is essentially an “Open Society,” constantly bettering itself by letting in non-immigrant aliens—”whether tourists, business persons, students”—as well as refugees and substantial numbers of those seeking permanent residence and citizenship (21). While the French and the Japanese are relatively closed societies, having remained essentially French and Japanese throughout their histories, Americans change—on the whole, for the better. Natwar Gandhi, another Washington, D.C., immigration policy expert, asserts that “no other country attracts the best and the brightest from all over the world [like the U.S.] . . . [W]hat’s more, even the wretched, tired and poor—those who come risking their lives—gratefully repay this country with their hard work and dedication” (23).
         American cities are true metropolises with a diverse cultural base. Quality of life improves in the cities with new forms of entertainment, dining, and shopping. In Business Week, Christopher Farrell and Michael J. Mandel, citing various studies, report that immigrants “are invigorating . . . cities and older suburbs by setting up businesses, buying homes, paying taxes, and shopping at the corner grocery” (118). According to calculations done by the magazine based on the 1990 census, in the past decade the population in the ten largest American cities would have shrunk 6.8% were it not for immigrants, who actually raised that population by 4.7% (118). They have turned around many decaying neighborhoods. A decade ago, San Francisco’s Mission Street strip was a dying inner-city business area filled with crime and decaying streets. Today, first and second generation Asian, Arabic, and Hispanic immigrants have revitalized the area by opening businesses and buying homes there. Business Week says that another economic contribution that immigration provides is “a hardworking labor force to fill the low-paid jobs that make a modern service economy run. In many cities, industries such as hotels, restaurants, and child care would be hard-pressed without immigrant labor” (Farrell & Mandel 118).
         But, in the media and the public mind, it is this group of poor and unskilled workers—the “wretched, tired, and poor”—who represent the stereotypical immigrants, those who drain public resources and exacerbate the unemployment situation. This is a huge myth. According to Business Week, “Some 11 million immigrants are working, and they earn at least $240 billion a year, paying more than $90 billion in taxes. That’s a lot more than the estimated $5 billion immigrants receive in welfare” (Farrell & Mandel 114). A study by U.C. San Diego shows that only 8.8% of immigrant households received welfare, compared to 7.9% of all native-born Americans. Another Business Week survey shows that “in Los Angeles County, for example, immigrants amount to 16% of the 722,000 people on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the government’s main welfare program. Yet immigrants are more than 30% of the county’s population” (Farrell & Mandel 120).
         If they are not draining public resources, does that mean they are taking away jobs? Again there is not much proof. Take the following example: American blacks are supposed to be hurt more than any other group by low-skilled, low-wage immigrants. A 1992 Business Week/Harris Poll found that 73% of blacks “think businesses prefer to hire immigrants” over black Americans (Farrell & Mandel 119). Yet an examination of metropolitan areas in the western states and Texas failed to show that black unemployment rose with the rise in Mexican immigration during the 1970s. Indeed, areas where the Mexican immigrant population was large had “marginally lower unemployment than would be expected, holding other factors constant” (Muller 120). A March 16, 1990, Wall Street Journal editorial confirms that “labor markets clear like all others. Immigrants don’t come to countries unless they believe there’s opportunity” (“America the Vital” A12). Many take jobs that most natives would not take. Many Chinese work in “sweatshop” factories, keeping the price of clothes affordable; and Hispanics make up the majority of California agricultural workers, providing America’s abundant and cheap food supply. Literally, these workers are the “hands that feed us.”
         Only about one-third of immigrant workers received less than a high school education, and they are the ones who fill the low-skilled ranks. The more highly skilled workers offer even more economic benefits. Actually, according to Business Week, “a quarter of all immigrants have college degrees, slightly higher than the average for native-born Americans” (“Immigrants have worlds to offer” 154). Their entrepreneurial activities are helping to drive America’s economic engine. And their scientific skills boost America’s scientific and engineering know-how. Business Week has noted another quality in most immigrants: “[their] entrepreneurial spirit goes far beyond any one ethnic group or single line of business. Almost by definition, anyone who moves to a new country has a lot of initiative and desire to do well” (Farrell & Mandel 117).
         This is true of many immigrants I know. My Uncle Reuben arrived in the U.S. alone, when he was around age seventeen. He immediately worked long hours as kitchen helper and day laborer—the only types of jobs available to a young and unskilled, limited English speaking person. All the time, he went to night school, learning English and automobile mechanics. Soon, he was accepted into a special mechanics program for Asians sponsored by the Ford company. From there, his life and career took off. Today, at age ninety-something, he and others enjoy the fruits of his labors: a large car repair business and millions in real estate holdings. Feeling that he owes the U.S. an immense debt for his opportunity to prosper, he contributes much to the Y.M.C.A. and aids other charities through a service organization. Probably not ironically, two of his three sons work in the non-profit sector—one develops low-income housing while another is in social services. And my uncle also likes to reminisce about his younger years, the period before his career took off (he calls that time the “good ol’ days”), with his grandchildren and nephew. His tales only enrich the repertoire of immigrants’ success stories: I could repeat similar accounts of personal drive and gratitude featuring other immigrant friends and relatives.
         “Immigrant entrepreneurs have also made big contributions to the U.S. export boom,” report Farrell and Mandel. “Business run by immigrants from Asia, for example, have ready-made connections overseas. Immigrants bring a global perspective and international contacts to insular American businesses” (117). The U.S. is giving special treatment to investor immigrants, whose capital in America actually creates jobs. And it is not just the business field or Asians.
         The break-up of the Soviet Union and economic distress in Eastern Europe signals the latest wave of immigrants, and new opportunities for America to capitalize on immigrant drive, initiative, and talent. Russians predict that a half-million people, many of them Jews, will emigrate each year. Among them are tens of thousands of scientists and researchers. “Already, [former] Soviets are helping recharge physics and mathematics departments at colleges across the country,” notes another Business Week article, “The Soviet Brain Drain is the U.S. Brain Gain.” Yet “their contribution could be disproportionate to their numbers over the course of the coming decade. Virtually the entire faculty at the University of Minnesota’s Theoretical Physics Institute is from the [former] Soviet Union. At Stanford, a Russian biologist helped solve a Florida AIDS mystery” (Barnathan 95). Even Russia benefits from this “brain drain.” The same article maintains that “hiring émigrés and finding posts, however temporary, for those who might otherwise languish back home, may be the best way to salvage [Russian] science” (96). The U.S.’s gain does not mean another country’s loss.
         Over the short term and in certain regions, yes, immigration may be harmful. But over the long run, all indicators point to the beneficial effects of the influx of new talent, labor, capital, cultures, and languages. So why do so many Americans harbor mistaken attitudes towards immigration, which may lead to laws actually setting back the U.S. socially and economically?
         First, anecdotal evidence, such as the looting by Hispanics in South Central L.A. and the killings in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is often extrapolated in the public’s mind to include all Hispanics, Chinese, or Iranians. These images stick in the mind but, like the stereotype of the poor immigrant leech, are just stereotypes.
         Second, polls do not always demonstrate truth, they demonstrate opinion—in the cases of the immigration polls, they reflect today’s temporary headlines and a variety of misconceptions on the part of many Americans. I put forth that these anti-immigration sentiments are due to Americans’ racist attitudes, scapegoating, and a lack of understanding of other peoples. A rough demarcation line can be drawn in 1965 for the transition of European to non-European immigration. “Give me your tired, your poor” was originally meant for Europeans. The romance of early European immigration and the encounter with the Statue of Liberty gave rise to the “melting pot” image. For today’s great non-European immigration wave, some, like immigration opponent Richard Lamm, make the excuse that the “melting pot, like any pot, is finite” (Lamm x).
         Rather than an overdependence on defense industries (downsizing now due to the end of the Cold War), today’s immigrants are the scapegoats for recession-wary areas: Business Week observes that in “Southern California, immigrants are blamed for everything from rising unemployment to a rocketing budget deficit” (Farrell & Mandel 114). Immigration is only a small cause of our budgetary problems, although it is true that California pays a disproportionate share for immigration-related expenses. But California reaps a disproportionate share of the benefits from immigration as well—for example, those Hispanic agricultural workers enable California to lead the U.S., probably the world, in food production and economic efficiency.
         In a democracy like the U.S., politicians constantly pay attention to the media, polls, and public opinion—no matter how misinformed they are. It is never a good idea for any nation to formulate laws and policies based solely on misguided sentiment—in this case, to discontinue current levels of immigration in the future. Former Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm, now a leading advocate of immigration restriction in the U.S. House of Representatives, advocates this view: “I understand, in the past, ‘give me your tired, your poor.’ Today the U.S. has to look at our own huddled masses first” (Farrell & Mandel 114). Wrong. We must avoid drawing the wrong conclusions, which may lead to incidents like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1800s or prompt misguided policies actually detrimental to our economy. We must realize that it is still those newcomer “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who will keep the American dream alive for most of us.


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Farrell, Christopher, and Michael J. Mandel. “The Immigrants: How They’re Helping to Revitalize the U.S. Economy.” Business Week 13 July 1992: 114-122.

Foote, Donna, and Patricia King. “Across the Borderline.” Newsweek 31 May 1993: 25.

Fuchs, Lawrence. “The Search for Sound Immigration Policy: A Personal View.” Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration. Ed. Nathan Glazer. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, l985: 17-45.

Fulwood, Sam, III. “Poll Finds Americans Opposing Increase in Legal Immigration.” Los Angeles Times 5 June l990: A23.

Gandhi, Natwar M. “Still the Promised Land.” Washington Post 13 June l989: A27.

“Immigrants Have Worlds to Offer.” Business Week 13 June 1992: 154.

Lamm, Richard D., and Gary Imhoff. The Immigration Time Bomb: The Fragmenting of America. New York: Truman Talley Books, l985.

Muller, Thomas. “The Right Thing to Do: A History of Simpson-Mazzoli.” Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration. Ed. Nathan Glazer. San Francisco, CA Institute for Contemporary Studies, l985: 49-72.