Lady Liberty and her `huddled masses'

AS America marks Lady Liberty's centennial anniversary, a closer look at the myth and reality of United States alien admission policy would be quite useful and instructive. The truths are well known and often told. The US has indeed been a nation of immigrants, having been invigorated by ethnic wave after ethnic wave. Although large-scale immigration to the US is often thought of as something from our nation's past, each year this nation still admits hundreds of thousands of immigrants. In addition, the US has one of the most generous refugee policies in the world, as evidenced by the Mariel boatlift in 1980, and the Southeast Asian refugee resettlement program that has brought some 700,000 individuals to our shores.

Intertwined with the truths that exist about the alien admission policies of the US are three myths that have been conveniently perpetuated:

All have been welcomed:

It is easy to forget that from the latter part of the 19th century until only 21 years ago the US had an alien admission policy that purposely tried to keep certain ``undesirable'' ethnic groups from coming into this country. First there was the fear of a ``yellow horde'' taking control of the West Coast; and so the Chinese and eventually the Japanese were effectively excluded from coming to these shores. At the turn of the century the white Anglo-Saxons in power were fearful of the rise in the level of immigrants from the Mediterranean area. Moreover, ``scientific'' evidence of the day proved that these people were from an inferior race; their skulls were smaller and of a different size. The result was the national-origins quota system, which was law in this country until 1965.

American refugee policy fares no better. In 1938 Jewish schoolchildren fleeing Nazi Germany were not allowed to leave their ship off our shore, despite the existence of sponsors for these children. As chilling as this episode now appears, it pales in comparison with the weak efforts of the US government and American citizens to provide a safe haven for European Jews during and after World War II.

Immigrants as huddled masses:

The photographs that we now see of immigrants landing on Ellis Island at the turn of the century capture well the kinds of people this nation admitted then. These were working-class people who were looking for a better life in this country, perhaps any life at all. The empirical evidence indicates that these individuals were the ``huddled masses'' that Emma Lazarus's famous poem speaks of. For example, in 1910 only 1.2 percent of the aliens admitted to the US were professional and technical workers, compared with 4.7 percent of the American population.

Sixty years later, the composition of the immigrants admitted to this country has certainly changed. In 1970, 29.4 percent of the aliens admitted were professional and technical workers, compared with only 14.2 percent of the American work force in such work categories.

What really brings home the upper-class bias in current US immigration policy is to compare the socioeconomic backgrounds of immigrants coming to the US with the occupational backgrounds of the sending society. In 1979, 57 percent of the Iranian immigrants admitted were either professional, technical, and kindred workers, or managers and administrators. Only 6 percent of the work force of Iran falls into any of these socioeconomic classes.

Iran is not atypical. In that same year 68 percent of the aliens admitted from India were in one of these white-collar occupations, but only 3.7 percent of the Indian population. Forty-two percent of the aliens admitted from Thailand in 1979 were in one of these listed occupational categories, compared with 3 percent of the work force of Thailand. The list goes on.

One response might be that it is in America's interest to have such people admitted to this country. Perhaps this is in fact true. But one might also consider at what cost to the sending society. Moreover, rather than perpetuate the myth of legal immigrants coming to the US to start a new life here, we might recognize that many of those now coming to this country already have a life, and a very comfortable one at that.

The upper-class bias in normal flow immigration outlined above is paralleled in US refugee policy as well. It is well known that the first wave of Cubans coming to the US in the late 1950s were the very upper strata of Cuban society. Each subsequent wave of Cuban refugees, however, has also had a decidedly well-to-do tilt to it.

All men are our brothers:

The last myth that will be discussed is the idea that ideological concerns have been removed from American alien admission policy, particularly US refugee policy.

The 1980 Refugee Act was a concerted effort to remove the previous ideological restrictions in US immigration law that had limited admission of refugees to those from communist countries and the Middle East. The law has brought no change in practice. American refugee policy is dominated as much by ideology now as it was before the Refugee Act. Individuals from communist regimes still completely dominate the list of those who are admitted as refugees. Asylum rates clearly show an ideological bias as well. A Soviet applicant for asylum has a chance of obtaining it which is 20 times as great as an applicant from El Salvador.

Martina Navratilova, Hu Na, the Chinese tennis player, and countless hockey players from Eastern Europe (now playing for American professional hockey teams) have no problems proving to the satisfaction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. But less than 3 percent of the applicants from El Salvador, 2 percent of the Guatemalans, and 2 percent of the Haitians can show this.

In very many respects Americans should be proud of their immigration heritage and their country's alien admission policy. In some other respects, however, the record is less than admirable. What seems clear is that a closer examination of US alien admission practices is desperately needed.

Mark Gibney is an assistant professor of political science at Purdue University.

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