Impact of immigration on America - a popular '84 commencement theme

The graduates of some 3,000 American colleges and universities have tucked their caps and gowns back into the rental boxes. The lofty pronouncements of commencement speakers will not echo again until next year.

But among the diverse issues raised on graduation daises this year, one theme recurred again and again: immigration and its impact on America.

''From every point on the immigration compass, the United States is magnetic North,'' Franklin A. Thomas, president of the Ford Foundation, told students at Cooper Union College in New York City. ''The American Dream is the immigrants' dream,'' he said.

Commencement speakers as diverse as Boston University president John Silber (Alaska Pacific University), San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros (Texas A&M University), and New York City Mayor Edward Koch (Manhattan College) spoke of immigration as an important factor in a search for national identity that in many ways parallels the challenge graduates face to carve out a new identity for themselves.

Across the country many graduates were asked to ponder just how far America should open its doors. No one suggested its borders should be slammed shut. Neither did anyone suggest they be more liberally opened. At issue is what effect the future naturalization of this stream of new residents would have on the long-term stability and survival of the values and traditions of the US.

This ''new migration,'' Thomas said, ''has not provoked hysteria; it has provoked uneasiness. There is a foreboding that we are losing control of our borders and that the problem has become not only the size of the inflow but its unpredictability and unmanageability. . . .''

Thomas suggested that Americans are no longer as keen as they once were to make room for immigrant masses ''yearning to breathe free.'' He noted an ''uneasiness'' that cuts across all political lines ''about an irresistible drift toward a bilingual America.''

The immigration to which Thomas refers has several antecedents. Between 1840 and 1860 nearly 4.4 million aliens entered America. The overwhelming majority came from Ireland, Britain, and Germany. Between 1865 and 1915 some 30 million arrived on these shores, this time coming predominately from Italy, Poland, Russia, Greece, the Balkans, and the Austrian Empire.

Today's immigration rate matches the record levels of the turn of the century , when from 1900 to 1910, 9 million settlers arrived, Thomas added, noting that 80 percent of the current wave are of Latin American, Caribbean, and Asian origin.

Nowhere was the arrival of new immigrants more clearly symbolized than at New York's City College graduation, where the valedictorian was Chi (''Christopher'') Luu of Vietnam. When Mr. Luu came to the US five years ago, he knew no English. His presence in the No. 1 spot on the dais graphically symbolized the multi-racial, multi-ethnic composition of the graduates on campus after campus.

BU's Dr. Silber believes the moral lessons of restraint and sacrifice are the things that bind diverse peoples together. Quoting from Rudyard Kipling, Silber told students that when such time-tested truths with their hard lessons are taught to a nation's young or its new arrivals, a society can look to the future with confidence. On the other hand, a nation that ignores these lessons does so at its peril. Mayors Cisnerous and Koch stressed the nation's welcome for, rather than fear of, the new immigrants as well as the dramatic effect they will have on their cities' economy and culture.

This year's graduates will shape, and be shaped by, the new immigrants. Commencement addresses may be forgotten. The immigration issue will not.

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