ALTHOUGH affirmative action and immigration have been widely discussed in Congress and the media, they have always been considered separately. Yet each year the US admits about half a million immigrants eligible for affirmative action benefits. About 20 years ago the administration and the courts began mandating preferential treatment for certain ethnic groups - blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Indians. These special privileges in employment, government contracts, lending, and education were intended to compensate for historical discrimination. Apparently, it was assumed that the beneficiaries of affirmative action would be Americans, since there was relatively little immigration, and little prospect of immigration, of additional blacks, Hispanics, or Asians from overseas.
Over the past two decades, however, a huge change has occurred in immigration to the United States. In 1965, the US admitted about 115,000 persons from what we now call the third world, representing just under half of the total number of immigrants. By 1988 the number of such immigrants had increased five-fold, to 566,000, making up nearly 90 percent of all immigrants. Over the past 20 years, 8 million immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands, Latin America, and Africa have arrived in the US legally (in addition to an enormous, but unknown, number of illegal immigrants).
These immigrants are eligible for affirmative action privileges immediately upon their arrival, despite the fact that they have no conceivable claim upon America's conscience. It is hardly nativist or xenophobic to observe that such a situation is unjust. And the injustice has created bizarre distortions and conflicts. For example, the current system would allow a wealthy, Oxford-educated, Peruvian doctor to immigrate to the US and claim affirmative action benefits at the expense of the son of a coal miner from Appalachia, based merely on his ethnicity.
Many white Americans are prepared to endure certain difficulties for the betterment of their fellow citizens who belong to ethnic minorities. But is it not too much to expect Americans to tolerate reverse discrimination for the benefit of foreign citizens who voluntarily come to the US in search of equal opportunity?
Not only white Americans but black Americans, who were billed as the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action, have also lost out to better-educated and wealthier immigrants. The hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees who fled to Miami after the rise of Fidel Castro, for instance, were largely middle class and better able to take advantage of newly-enacted affirmative action benefits than black Americans. Sociologist Marvin Dunn, in ``Anatomy of a Riot,'' has shown that resentment caused by special treatment afforded Cubans was at least partly responsible for the Liberty City riots of 1980. As far as black Americans are concerned, the recent arrival of thousands of Nicaraguans is merely a replay of the Cuban experience.
Nor do black Americans lose out merely to Hispanic and Asian immigrants. The US is experiencing an influx of black immigrants - West Indians from Haiti, Jamaica, and other islands; Africans from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere. From 1978 to 1988, the US admitted over 700,000 black immigrants, more than at any other period in US history. Over the past several years black immigration has increased about 20 percent per year.
Of course, it has long been true that West Indian immigrants and their offspring have held leadership positions among black Americans. Marcus Garvey, Shirley Chisolm, Roy Innes, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Gen. Colin Powell are just a few of the notable blacks of West Indian birth or heritage.
It is increasingly evident, however, that black immigrants, at least partly aided by affirmative action, are actually displacing black Americans less able to compete. A recent study shows that while the overall number of black students in Miami-area colleges and universities stayed about the same from 1978 to 1987, the percentage of black Americans fell drastically. At Miami-Dade Community College, the area's largest institution of higher education, American-born students fell from 85 percent to 55 percent of total black enrollment in just 10 years. Similar displacement of black Americans is no doubt occurring in Boston, New York, Washington, and other cities with substantial numbers of black immigrants.
The US has a tradition of welcoming immigrants. But this tradition does not require subsidizing immigrants at the expense of American citizens.
If the US continues to accept large numbers of Asian, Latin American, and African immigrants, it is unjust to maintain affirmative action as it is. If race-based affirmative action continues as a means to right historical wrongs, it is immoral to allow large-scale immigration of covered ethnic groups. We must chose one way or the other.