Immigration Reaches Critical Mass

America is not an ethno-state. That this needs restating is a sign of the times.

By William A. Galston

Candidates for U.S. citizenship take the oath of allegiance at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Nov. 17. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Half a century ago Congress enacted two transformative laws. The Voting Rights Act struck the political system like a lightning bolt. The other law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, has been like a time-release capsule whose effects build over time.

It’s hard to say which has done more to change American society. But one thing is clear: During this election concerns about the consequences of our post-1965 immigration regime reached critical mass and found their voice. To be sure, the explicit critique focused on illegal immigration rather than the law itself. But it wasn’t hard to detect broader worries.

A 2016 immigration survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 21% of Americans say the prospect of the U.S. becoming a majority nonwhite country would “bother” them, up from 14% three years earlier. Among working-class whites, the figure was 28%; among Americans 65 and older, 29%.

Fifty percent of all Americans acknowledged being bothered when they came into contact with immigrants who spoke little or no English, a figure that rose to 58% among seniors and 64% of white working-class Americans.

These sentiments have an explanation—and a history. After decades of mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe after the Civil War, immigrants as a share of the U.S. population surged to nearly 15% early in the 20th century. In reaction, strong nativist and racialist movements emerged.

When the U.S. economy lapsed into recession after World War I and fears of foreign-born radicals bent on domestic terrorism rose, the stage was set for restrictive immigration laws—the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924. These laws established caps on immigration from individual countries, which had the effect of reducing overall levels of immigration while virtually shutting down immigration from countries deemed undesirable.

In the wake of these laws, immigration from Italy fell by more than 90%. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe, which represented about three-quarters of total immigration between 1900 and 1910, decreased to only one-third of the total during the 1930s.

Despite some changes in the early 1950s, this restrictive immigration regime remained in place until the mid-1960s. Its consequences were momentous. Between 1924 and 1965, the immigrant share of the population fell to only 5% from 15%. Like the Germans and Scandinavians before them, “ethnics” from central and southern Europe were gradually assimilated into white America, a process that many scholars believe contributed to the relatively placid and consensual politics of the postwar decades. All else equal, homogeneity and solidarity are linked.

During the past five decades, this process has been reversed. Since 1965, according to the Pew Research Center, immigration has increased the country’s foreign-born population from 9.6 million to a record 45 million in 2015. As a share of the total population, the foreign-born nearly tripled from 4.8% to 13.9%, approaching the peak reached a century ago. During this period, new immigrants, their children and their grandchildren constituted 55% of U.S. population growth. After transforming their ports of entry, the so-called gateway cities, they gradually spread to smaller towns with no history of demographic diversity.

If current trends continue, Pew predicts, the absolute number of first-generation immigrants will rise still further in the next five decades, to 78.2 million, and the immigrant share of the population will surge to a record high 17.7%.

Native-born Americans may not know these numbers, but they sense them, and many are troubled. The PRRI-Brookings survey found that 66% of Republicans and 77% of Trump supporters were bothered by encounters with non-English-speaking immigrants, compared with 35% of Democrats.

As a country, we can and should place more emphasis on new immigrants acquiring English-language competence and on the process of civic integration. What we cannot do is halt, let alone reverse, the shifts in the composition of our population. Over the past five decades, the white share has declined to 62% from 84%.

Even if we slammed the gates shut tomorrow, Pew demographers project, the white share would continue to decline over the next five decades to 54%. In my son’s lifetime, whites will become a minority. Indeed, their absolute numbers will shrink from today’s 200 million to 181 million in 2065.

Whatever may have been the case in the past, today’s America does not belong to any single group. It belongs to anyone legally admitted to this country who in good faith pledges allegiance to our constitutional and civic norms.

America is not an ethno-state. As our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, reminded us, it is a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It is a sign of our degraded times that it is necessary to restate what should be obvious to all.

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