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A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America.

A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. By Aristide R. Zolberg (New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, 2006. viii plus 658 pp. $39.95).

In 2007, frenzy over undocumented immigrants in the United State catapulted immigration high on the public agenda. Despite a bipartisan proposal worked out by senior Senators, Congress's attempt to pass immigration reform legislation in May ended in fiasco. This Congressional meltdown in the face of the complexities of immigration policy reflected much more than indecisiveness, partisan bickering, or incompetence. Rather, it illustrated the contradictions and themes that have marked the politics of immigration in the United States for more than a century. This lineage will prove unmistakable to readers of Aristide R. Zolberg's America by Design, which reveals why immigration proves so intractable a political issue, even if Zolberg's realism offers little guidance for surmounting the obstacles to coherent and humane policy.

Readers will find in the book a variety of themes that resonate with what they read in the newspapers, see on TV, or encounter in conversation. Whenever ethnically or culturally strange immigrants have reached U.S. shores, Americans have reacted with defensive nativism based as much, or more, on racialized cultural concerns as on economics. The politics of response have brought together "strange bedfellows," uniting, as today, fragments of conservative and liberal groups customarily political opponents. The preferred policy option has been some variant of "remote control" designed to prevent immigrants from stepping foot on the boat or airplane rather than stopping or deporting them once they reached the U.S. Federal government policies, moreover, have differentiated among classes of immigrants: those entering legally, through the front door, by way of quotas or legislated preferences; refugees for whom a side door opened after World War II; or the backdoor through which the undocumented have slipped in for decades. Attempts to close the backdoor have proved singularly unsuccessful, even counterproductive, raising questions about the efficacy and unintended consequences of whatever legislation Congress finally passes now. Indeed, the dismaying inability of political authorities to accurately predict the impact of immigration legislation leaps out from Zolberg's history.

In recent years, the history of immigration has attracted talented scholars who have transformed the field. Their work makes Zolberg's synthesis possible, as he acknowledges and as his massive endnotes attest. Readers conversant with the new historiography will not be surprised at many of Zolberg's observations, such as his analysis of how immigration politics produces "strange bedfellows," which resembles Daniel Tichenor's in Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in the United States (2002). Zolberg, however, does more than synthesize this new literature; he uses it to advance his own bold thesis. The result is a magisterial survey of the history of U.S. immigration policy from the Colonial period to the present.

The title of his book captures Zolberg's primary thesis:
 From the moment they managed their own affairs, well before political
 independence, Americans were determined to select who might join them,
 and they have remained so ever since. Immigration policy, broadly
 conceived in this book to encompass not only entry but also related
 processes that affect the nation's composition, thus emerged from the
 outset as a major instrument of nation-building.... (1)


Zolberg, as this quotation makes clear, takes a capacious view of immigration that embraces the identity, distribution, and numbers of people Americans have wanted to compose their nation. This broad view--most evident in his discussions of periods prior to the twentieth-century--constitutes one of the book's strengths. For Zolberg brings together strands in writing about population--immigration, slavery, internal migration -usually artificially separated in the academic literature. As in his discussion of the manipulation of land policy to attract both immigrants and native-born settlers, Zolberg incorporates these generally distinct literatures into one framework, although, again, more so for the years prior to the twentieth-century than for recent history.

Zolberg rejects the dominant scholarly narrative of immigration policy, which holds that the nation's relaxed attitude toward immigration resulted in virtually open borders before the late nineteenth-century. In this conventional story, U.S. attempts to regulate and restrict immigration began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. To the contrary, claims Zolberg, in the ante-bellum period states proved active population designers, as they enacted a variety of restrictionist measures. Constitutional concerns reinforced by the politics of slavery left immigration control to the states while the federal government, with the exception of the Passenger Acts of 1819 and 1847, focused only on naturalization. Although Zolberg demonstrates the concern of Early Republic and antebellum state and federal legislators with population policy, in practical terms, neither legislation nor regulation influenced immigration very much. Labor market conditions abroad and in the U.S. proved far more influential. Immigration responded, too, to the policies of European governments which generally, although not completely, abandoned their mercantilist attempts to staunch emigration. Zolberg's admission that early efforts at restriction had little impact partially undercuts his over-arching thesis about America's population as designed from the outset, unless one includes intent as well as achievement as evidence.

In fact, as Zolberg points out, in the late nineteenth century American immigration policy shifted from deterring undesirables to enacting restriction. No longer content to prevent the entrance of diseased, dependent, criminal, and radical foreigners, immigration policy slowly but unmistakably underwent a momentous transformation as it came to focus on reducing the flow of immigration and discriminating among immigrants by national origin, usually on a racial basis. This new phase in immigration history began earlier than most historians acknowledge, he argues, and culminated in the national origin quotas of the 1920s. A new phase opened again after mid- century, most notably with the acceptance of refugees and the 1965 repeal of the national origins quotas, an act whose liberalism, Zolberg, like other recent writers, points out, is greatly overstated by commentators who miss both the significance of numerical quotas for the Western hemisphere, intended primarily to curb immigration from Mexico, and, more generally, numerical limits as a universally accepted plank of immigration policy.

The result was ironic. Congress did not intend to vastly increase the number of immigrants or radically alter their predominant national origins. Yet, this is precisely what occurred as a result of its actions, for reasons Zolberg explains. However, his chauvinistic observation that "the new wave turned the United States into the first nation to mirror humanity" (337) fails to include Canada where, in 2001, the foreign-born composed 23 percent of the population, about twice the proportion in the United States or Australia and New Zealand where the proportion of foreign-born was about the same.

In legislating policy, Congress has had to steer through business interests dependent on cheap immigrant labor, which opposed restrictions, and the fears of organized labor, which viewed immigrants as competitors who took jobs and lowered wages. Zolberg is very good at limning the twists and turns of organized labor's positions on immigration. At times, labor's hostility has put it in the camp of cultural conservatives fearful of immigration's impact on American nationality and culture while conservative politicians aligned with business interests have found themselves joined with political liberals favoring less restrictive policies. These are the strange bedfellows whose unstable alliances have transcended conventional political party divisions and which make immigration reform so difficult.

A brief review cannot highlight the insights and arresting observations peppered throughout every chapter of A Nation by Design. That said, this is not a book for the faint of heart. It is dense with detail--one might say of the last chapters where political negotiations are followed, excessive detail. The final substantive chapter, however, will serve as a welcome and insightful guide to the rise of today's anti-immigrant politics. The conclusion both restates the book's major themes and advances a "cosmopolitan" framework for immigration policy that, alas, is not likely to serve as a template for Congressional action. Nonetheless, in this hyper-charged political climate Zolberg has provided a singular service. A Nation by Design is both an awesome work of scholarship and an indispensable source for understanding the seamy and complicated ancestry of America's current politics of immigration.

Michael B. Katz

University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Katz, Michael B.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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