AMERICAN immigration, now rising toward record levels, has emerged as a potentially explosive issue in the 1992 presidential campaign.Two Republican candidates, Patrick Buchanan and David Duke, are sharply criticizing immigration policies fashioned by Congress and the Bush administration. Those policies are expected to increase immigration to between 9 million and 12 million during the 1990s. Gov. Pete Wilson, the moderate Republican governor of California, also charges that floods of immigrants arriving in his state are adding to California's multi-billion-dollar budget crisis.
In the political arena The immigration issue appears to be gaining political momentum, particularly among Republicans. But as it gains prominence, analysts ask: Is immigration merely being used as a scapegoat for the current recession by Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Duke, and Governor Wilson? Or is the growing level of immigration a legitimate issue that deserves wider attention among the public? Some public interest groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have urged greater public debate on this issue for years. But Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, suggests Duke and Buchanan are exploiting the issue - beating up on immigrants, most of whom are nonwhite, to make a subtle racial appeal to voters. Even so, both candidates are expected to press their attack on US immigration policy, particularly in Sunbelt states like Texas and California that are receiving millions of new residents from Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and Asia. Duke vows that immigration will be a key issue in the primary in Texas, which is expected to get over 1 million new foreign-born residents during the 1990s.
A question of race Buchanan and Duke both say that heavy immigration from non-European nations poses a risk to American culture. Duke told a recent press conference in Washington: "We've got to begin to protect our values.... We're part of Western Christian civilization.... Our traditions are being torn away. Our values are being torn away." Buchanan, who will battle Bush one-on-one in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, is equally outspoken. He deplores the cultural impact of millions of immigrants from non-English-speaking nations. He told an interviewer on ABC-TV: "I think God made all people good, but if we had to take a million immigrants in, say, Zulus next year or Englishmen, and put them in Virginia, what group would be easier to assimilate and would cause less problems for the people of Virginia? There is nothing wrong with us sitting down and arguing that issue that we are a European country, English-speaking country." Critics of immigration are most concerned about long-term effects in states like California, Texas, and New York. According to recent population studies, California will no longer have a white majority by 2000; New York and Texas will lose their white majorities by 2020. Although they don't sympathize with the arguments of Buchanan and Duke, a number of experts admit that big changes are taking place in the makeup of the American population, largely because of immigration. Doris Meissner of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for example, notes that the fastest growing religious groups in America are Buddhists and Muslims. "There are more Muslims now than Episcopalians," she observes. Mrs. Meissner wonders why Buchanan and Duke feel so threatened by the arrival of these new residents, however, since the integration of these new residents is moving ahead "quite unnoticed and quite effectively." Diversity is supposed to be an American strength, she says. "I think it conveys a lack of belief in our institutions to say that they cannot stand up to the changes now coming in our country. Why are our institutions so fragile now?" Meissner asks. Mark DiCamillo, a pollster with the Field Institute in California, says it is "illegal" immigration that really angers voters, both Republicans and Democrats. Opposition to "legal" immigration is mostly limited to Republicans, he says.
Immigrants and jobs Elliott Barkan, a professor of history and ethnic studies at California State University at San Bernardino, says the immigration issue is "phony" because immigrants "take the jobs that Americans won't take," such as field work on farms. He calls immigration a "Willie Horton issue," a way of blaming problems on someone of another race. Meissner says it is "fascinating" that Governor Wilson now blames immigration for his state's problems. Just a few years ago, as a US senator, Wilson "argued against immigration controls" that might have cut the flow of Mexican labor to California. She says: "Of all states, California has benefited from immigration. [It] was an enormous source of energy for California [during good times]. But you cannot have it both ways. [If you have] an open market to use that labor, then you have to be prepared for the consequences when the business cycle moves in the other direction."