THEY come by the millions - immigrants to America - from China, Mexico, Iran, India, Nigeria, Ireland, and more than 100 other lands. Now Americans are beginning to express concern.
A survey released Tuesday by the Roper Organization and the Federation for American Immigration Reform indicates that a majority of those polled in the United States believe too many immigrants are landing on this nation's shores.
Concern is particularly keen in states that receive large numbers of immigrants, such as California, where three out of every four voters say the newcomers are too numerous. "Simply put, the public believes our current laws allow too many immigrants into the country, ... and this opinion has increased significantly over the past two years," the Roper report concludes.
Some politicians, including Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California and Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, reflect this sentiment. They argue that immigrants increase unemployment, strain social services, and push down wage rates.
The recent Los Angeles riot focused additional attention on immigration, with critics charging that newcomers compete with less-educated Americans for low-skill jobs. Opposition to immigration is particularly strong among older citizens. As the US population ages, this opposition could become politically important in states like California, Texas, and Florida.
Although Americans have long supported tighter restrictions, Congress ignored those views and hiked immigration levels by 30 to 40 percent, starting in the current fiscal year. Last year, prior to the new law, the number of legal immigrants was 704,005. In addition, 1,123,162 people who had entered the US illegally were permitted to stay under an amnesty program. Restrictions favored
Public sentiment favoring tighter restrictions is often drowned out by special-interest lobbyists, including the agriculture and construction industries (which want to keep labor costs down), religious groups such as Quakers and Roman Catholics, and ethnic organizations such as those favoring higher immigration from Mexico.
Public-opinion analysts call immigration a "back yard" issue - that is, voters get excited about it, and demand change, only when the problem shows up in their own communities or states. If it's happening 1,000 miles away, most Americans ignore it.
Dan Stein, executive director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), expressed surprise about the latest survey because, he says, it showed many voters "are well informed about these issues.... A majority realize immigration is not a free lunch," he says.
Doris Meissner, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says immigration clearly helped the economy of California and some other states during the 1980s boom. Workers were in short supply, and immigrants supplied willing hands.
However, the Roper survey found that people are concerned about immigrants during times of economic recession. Roper asked: "Currently, immigration levels are not limited in any way to our country's unemployment rate. Do you think immigration levels should or should not be related to our level of unemployment?"
The response: Should be related, 58 percent; should not, 25 percent; don't know, 6 percent.
Roper also cited Congress's decision to hike immigration by 40 percent. By a 69-to-25 percent margin, Americans said that law should be reversed and immigration should be decreased.
About 59 percent of Americans say immigration levels are too high, while just 5 percent say they are too low. Some people think immigration should be reduced drastically. Five percent say the ceiling should be 500,000 a year; 15 percent favor 300,000; 21 percent want 100,000, and 12 percent want no immigrants. Of those who want immigration increased, 2 percent would have no limits whatsoever. Some 28 percent say the current level is "about right."
Several pressures appear to be at work - costs, population growth, and lack of jobs - to discourage higher levels of immigration. Financial burden seen
Across the US, 43 percent of Americans say immigration has become a financial burden on their states. Where immigration is higher, as in the West, 66 percent say immigration is a financial burden. In California, the heaviest immigration state, 78 percent feel that way.
Population levels also are a concern. While only 28 percent of all Americans feel their states are getting too crowded, in California that figure zooms up to 69 percent. While few protest immigration levels, Americans say that their leaders are generally failing on this issue. Nationwide, 72 percent say "sound leadership is lacking" on immigration. In California, the figure is 85 percent.
Though Governor Wilson and Mr. Buchanan have failed to create many sparks with this issue, the kindling is there. Some 86 percent of the voters call immigration either a "very important" or "moderately important" topic.
As for illegal immigration, 84 percent of those polled (92 percent in California) want stronger action by Congress to get the problem under control.