This story can serve as a metaphor for immigration: While working in Nairobi, my Ghanaian friends Sam and Paulina Atiemo bought a modest row house in a middle-class Kenyan neighborhood. The house gave them a postage-stamp garden and plenty of room for their children and guests. The only drawback was that over their back wall was a railroad line, and beyond it the huge, depressing slum called Kibera, a warren of makeshift houses. Kibera is the kind of slum you see pictured on television specials about Third World poverty.

Kibera was growing. Soon entrepreneurs began to sell produce in the open area behind the Atiemos' wall. Eventually they replaced their improvised stands with tin-roofed shacks, which used the Atiemos' wall as their back wall and main support. The wall, like that of all the Atiemos' middle-class neighbors, was topped with shards of broken glass, to keep thieves out. The wall was high, and the Atiemos could not see the entrepreneurs—from their second-story window they could only see their roofs—but they could hear their radios and their conversation. And they could talk to them through a hole at the base of the wall.

The Atiemos' house was designed so that washing water flushed out an open drain and through that small hole in the wall. It had worked well when there was free space beyond. Now, however, the occupants of that space objected. "At least let us know before you throw out your washwater," they asked, "so we can move our produce." For some time the Atiemos did so. Then one day they discovered that someone had cemented up the hole. They chipped it open so their water could drain, but soon it had been cemented up again. After that, the washing water had to stand in their back yard.

When it came time for the Atiemos to move away from Nairobi, some Americans considered buying their house. When they peered out the back windows they faced a daunting vista, however. The rusty tin roofs of Kibera had grown like a forest to the very edge of the Atiemos' wall. The roofs extended out of sight, a menacing and seemingly infinite world of poverty. The Americans did not take the house, and the Atiemos thought the roofs were the reason why. They understood: It is not a psychologically simple matter to live a middle-class existence on a postage stamp island, separated from unthinkable poverty by a tall, brick wall topped with shards of broken glass.


So here we are in postage-stamp America, surrounded by poverty right up to our walls. That is the way we often think of our privileged position in the world. Immigration is a part of that picture. Through it that poverty is able to dribble (or gush) inside. Take down the wall, and we might be overwhelmed.

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Immigration punctuates the news with crises. Remember the Vietnamese boat people, the Mariel boat lift, the wetback crisis, Haitian refugees, Proposition 187, the Golden Venture, the sanctuary movement? We are regularly reminded that whites are about to become a minority in America, that our borders are out of control, that we cannot provide jobs and free education to everybody in the world. "Waves of desperate migrants seeking relief from hunger, poverty, or tribal warfare may prove to be a more formidable challenge … than Soviet missiles or tanks," writes Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

A cover of last year's Atlantic Monthly captured this anxiety perfectly. To the question, "The Rest Against the West?" it pictured a white, middle-aged barbecuer with his dog and "Home Sweet Home" apron looking apprehensively across his fence at dozens of peering brown faces. No one was harming him, and yet: How can you barbecue hot dogs with a hungry world looking on?

I lived through the Proposition 187 debate in last year's California elections. Reflecting that anxious mood was the repeated cry, "We've got to do something!" Very few people seemed to believe that Proposition 187 (which sought to prohibit illegal aliens from receiving government-funded benefits, such as education) was a desirable solution. (Indeed, the likelihood of the courts stopping its implementation was cited by Gov. [Pete] Wilson as a reason to vote for it.) But people said we needed to "send a message to Washington."

An equally soulful cry was heard from the other side: "Why do you want to hurt people?" For those on the other side of the wall are not evil people. Their desires for a better life are understandable to us all. More and more it seems, however, that to keep them on their side of the wall we have to hurt them, or at least threaten them.

On such matters, fraught with moral questions, Christians surely should have something valuable to say. But it is by no means clear just what. We are in a position much like Jesus' disciples, who, confronting a hungry crowd, saw only one solution: "Send the people away!" (Mark 6:36). Jesus fed the multitudes from a few loaves and fishes, but (like the disciples) we lack his confidence in miracles. Should we send the people away on the practical grounds that there is not enough here for everybody who wants to come? Or should we encourage our government to embrace the crowds and their needs?

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It is true that Scripture tells us to love the alien as ourselves (Lev. 19:33), not to mistreat or oppress him (Exod. 22:21), and to include him in the welfare scheme for orphans and widows (Deut. 24:19-22). But those words were written when the world's population was a small fraction of our own; when borders were open or nonexistent (think whether you can remember any document checks on Abraham and his children as they traveled ancient Palestine); when welfare consisted of letting the poor glean what was left over from the harvest.

We cannot straightforwardly translate the Old Testament commands into our own situation. We first need to understand our nation, our time, and our peculiar dilemmas.


Anxiety over immigration is as old as America. "There is a limit to our powers of assimilation," a New York Times editorial declared in May 1880, "and when it is exceeded the country suffers from something very like indigestion." Several of the Founding Fathers worried publicly that immigrants were imposing a foreign politics and foreign culture on our land. Tolerant Benjamin Franklin, for example, wrote, "Why should the Palatine Boors [German immigrants] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together, establish their language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens?"

First the Germans and the Irish, then the Italians and the Jews were treated as the bane of American society. Yet strangely, anti-immigration feeling never translated into limits on immigration. Any number could come, and did. In 1856, the No-Nothing political party, created largely to protect America from immigrants, became one of the most powerful political forces in the nation. It soon faded away, however. Not until 1882 were the first restrictions set, barring Chinese laborers; and not until the 1920s did immigration quotas begin, fixing annual limits for each nation's immigrants, and ensuring that northern Europeans would continue to predominate. (Southern Europeans, considered genetically feeble, were restricted, and Asians were all but barred. For immigrants from the Western hemisphere, however, no numerical limits were set until 1965. As it happened, few came.)

In part as a result of the restrictive legislation, in part because of World War II, immigration to the United States was sharply reduced between the 1920s and the 1950s. In 1965, however, Congress scrapped the national origins quota system and enacted legislation that opened the door to a new wave of immigration.

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Ironically, this landmark legislation was not designed to increase immigration. Sen. Edward Kennedy, chairing the Immigration Subcommittee when it adopted the 1965 Immigration Act, promised that "our cities will not be flooded with a million immigrants annually. Under the proposed bill, the present level of immigration remains substantially the same. … Secondly, the ethnic mix will not be upset. … [The bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from … the most populated and deprived nations of Africa and Asia."

Nevertheless, immigration immediately boomed. Furthermore, the ethnic mix changed dramatically, from Europeans to Asians and Latinos. Today over a million people come to live in the United States each year. This is the highest level of immigration, numerically speaking, the world has ever known. (As a percentage of the U.S. population, however, immigration to the United States is perhaps a third of what it was at the beginning of the century.) Most of them come from poor Third World countries.

Increased immigration is a direct result of government policy—even though Americans have never favored more immigration, and a law has never been passed that was intended to increase it. That is because while Americans generally want less immigration, they do not want it badly. Meanwhile, many special-interest groups have worked hard for generous provisions. Business and agricultural concerns sought immigrant labor; ethnic groups wanted relatives and former countrymen to join them; political lobbies desired hospitality for refugees from oppressive regimes—especially Communist ones.

Underneath these legal explanations, however, are more fundamental changes. Americans once felt comfortable excluding all but Anglos. No more. Prejudice that was once normal is widely seen as wrong. That is why in 1965 our immigration laws dropped barriers to Asian immigration. It seemed like the right thing to do. Asia, however, more than any other continent, has a poverty-stricken population that can dwarf ours.

There is also the matter of family values. The 1965 law allowed citizens and permanent residents to bring close relatives into the country—their spouses, children, parents, brothers, and sisters. The law's sponsors claimed this would preserve the U.S.'s ethnic makeup, since the largest ethnic groups—European—would presumably have the most relatives to bring over. It turned out that Asians and Latinos had a much larger sense of family. They brought in relatives by the score, and each, in turn, brought more.

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There is, finally, the fact that people in far-off places know much more about America than their parents did. American films and television are seen everywhere. In New Delhi slums, I was told last year, 50 percent of the homes have a television, and MTV's shows are popular. Exactly what an undernourished child from the slums of Delhi sees in MTV I do not know, but no doubt it puts some kind of American tentacle in his soul.

Greatly expanded world trade, increased tourism and travel, lower air fares—all work to this end as well. The pressure is felt by all the wealthy countries in the world. Europe never had an immigration problem until the current era. Now, the Danes, for example, debate whether it is possible for their country to be multicultural, as opposed to being, well, Danish. So do the French, the English, the Germans. "Contemporary immigration is a direct consequence of the dominant influence attained by the culture of the advanced West in every corner of the globe," write Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut in Immigrant America. Ironically, that dominant culture feels threatened by the forces its dominance has unleashed.

Still, immigration is not really "out of control." Perhaps three out of every four American immigrants come legally. Congress could reduce immigration by half, overnight. Should we? Or should we continue to let a world of poor people, from cultures utterly unlike our own, flood to our cities?


Naturally, the first thing we think of is money. Immigration is often considered as an economic issue, as though we could wipe the faces off the people and consider them as purely monetary facts. There have been many careful analyses of immigrants' impact on employment, wages, taxes, and welfare. The results are not as illuminating as one might wish. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to consider immigration should know the economics involved. Here are questions that are commonly asked:

* Do immigrants take jobs from citizens? "If they could work eight days a week, they would," says Presbyterian pastor Rafael Martinez of the poor Mexican immigrants he ministers to in San Diego. That fits the usual portrait of the "immigrant personality"—someone highly motivated to work and get ahead. It is common for immigrants to hold two or even three jobs at once.

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Would at least one of those jobs have been held by an unemployed American citizen? The answer seems to be no. Immigrants appear to make very little impact on the job market. One reason is that they are almost always at a dramatic disadvantage in seeking jobs, either because their knowledge of English is limited, or because they lack the understanding of American culture needed on the job.

Immigrants get jobs that others will not take or for which no one else is qualified. Furthermore, they create jobs, both by starting their own businesses (immigrants tend to be self-employed more than native-born Americans) and by providing a market for goods and services. Economists note that areas with high immigration show no signs of higher unemployment. To the contrary, cities like Miami, Los Angeles, and even New York demonstrate highly dynamic economies.

* Do immigrants depress wages by supplying labor at wages citizens would never accept? Again, the answer seems to be no. At least, in areas where immigrants have flooded in—and three-quarters settle in just six states, California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey—wages are not lower than elsewhere. Economists can find no relationship between wage levels and immigration rates, whether they look at skilled or unskilled labor.

* Do immigrants create hardships for those at the bottom of American society, particularly for poor African Americans? Yes, there does seem to be some impact on the fortunes of low-skilled workers. Last year the President's Council of Economic Advisers reported that immigration "appears to have contributed to the increasing inequality of income [between rich and poor], but the effect has been small." One study found that when immigrant participation in a local labor market doubles, the wages of young blacks may fall by 4 percent or less. (Those of other minorities are unaffected.)

* Do immigrants cost the rest of us, by consuming more government-supported social services, such as free schools and Medicare, more than they pay for in their taxes? Most economists believe the answer is no. They estimate that immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. (Some, most prominently George Borjas of the University of California at San Diego, argue that immigrants are a net drain—though he estimates a net cost of $1 to $3 billion, small by comparison with the government budgets.)

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Two qualifications must be made, however. First, immigrants pay disproportionately more in federal than in state and local taxes, but they consume services at the local and state level. The federal government gets a surplus, and some states and localities end up with a loss. California's protests against federal policy seem well founded. Second, some kinds of immigrants—namely, illegal immigrants and refugees—contribute less and may cost more than other immigrants. For all these calculations, rough estimates are necessary; it seems impossible to be precise.

* Do immigrants take advantage of our safety net and become dependent on welfare? If you leave refugees out of it, immigrants are considerably less likely to go on welfare than native-born Americans. "Among non-refugee immigrants of working age who entered during the 1980s, 2.0 percent report welfare income versus 3.7 percent of working-age natives," an Urban Institute report by Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel found.

The two exceptions are refugees and elderly immigrants. Unlike other immigrants, refugees are eligible for welfare immediately on entering the United States, and they use welfare more than other Americans. That is perhaps to be expected, given the traumatic circumstances most of them come from.

As to the elderly, most of them have not worked long enough to qualify for social security. Over 25 percent of elderly post-1980 immigrants receive welfare, and this figure may be higher for groups that have learned how to "work the system." According to Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis, 55 percent of elderly ethnic Chinese immigrants in California are on welfare.

Economic studies can be used (and are) for both anti-immigration and pro-immigration arguments, but they are not overwhelming in either direction. They do point out that many problems lie not with immigration per se but with refugees and illegal aliens.

Refugees are not typical immigrants—they did not choose to leave home, and they often have been traumatized in the process of coming to America. They offer special burdens, but we have special obligations to them, too. Often they are victims of American wars—the Cold War, in general, and Southeast Asian wars the most prominent recent example. Further, they are people whose lives were in danger, people who desperately need compassion. Refugee resettlement is the last program that should be judged by a cost-benefit analysis.

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Illegal immigrants are a different story. Like most immigrants, they come for economic reasons, but they are mostly poor and uneducated, and their irregular status keeps them from joining the mainstream. Thus they make the smallest contributions economically.

The trouble is, it is hard to stop illegal immigration. Even if the border with Mexico could be controlled with less violence than was used on the Berlin Wall, large-scale illegal immigration would continue. Estimates are that half the undocumented immigrants come to America by legal means and simply overstay their visas. In a country as large and free as ours, it is hard to catch up with them. An effective employee identification system might work, but there are serious concerns about government intrusion.


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