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Mass Immigration and the National Interest.

Briggs's thesis is that U.S. immigration policy has been driven by short-sighted and ill-conceived political compromise, and that this policy has stimulated a massive inflow of those persons most detrimental to the American labor market, in general, and to the labor market fortunes of native-born minorities, in particular. Briggs introduces this theme on page one, where he defines "mass immigration" as an inflow whose chief characteristic is its quantitative size. He sharpens this definition, however, asserting, ". . . implicit in the usage of |"mass immigration"~ is disregard for the human capital characteristics of those who enter--especially in relation to the prevailing economic trends and social stresses at work within our nation."

The book comprises eight chapters, the first of which is a brief overview. Chapter two briefly reviews (the lack of adequate) immigration data and then selectively summarizes the treatment of migration in the economics literature. Chapters three through six are historical, and chapter seven is an analysis, according to Briggs, of the post World War II transformation of the American economy. Chapter eight reviews the Immigration Act of 1990 and gives the author's views on how this and other recent immigration legislation have been precisely the wrong policies for the post-war U.S. economy.

The great strength of the book is its historical chapters. In chapter 3, Briggs takes the reader from the colonial period through the first three great waves of immigration, i.e., up to the National Origins Act of 1924. Chapter 4 reviews immigration and domestic labor market trends during 1920s, 1930s, and early-1940s, a period of little to no immigration, and the latter half of the 1940s and 1950s, when the problems of large scale refugee flows came to dominate the political arena. Chapters 5 and 6 are lengthy, detailed descriptions and analyses of immigration policy since the 1960s. The spillover from domestic civil rights legislation to the move away from national origins as the basis for immigration is spotlighted. The irony that consequences of the resulting immigration legislation were detrimental to the economic mobility of native-born blacks is also stressed. In these chapters the student of American immigration can learn the political expediencies that lie behind the various categories--immigrant, nonimmigrant, asylee, and parolee--under which persons legally enter the United States. The historical material in chapter 8 considers immigration policy in the 1990s. The reader is brought not to the end of the story--hopefully, according to Briggs, the U.S. will yet rationalize its immigration policies--but to the present. As a history this work is top-notch and should be read by anyone interested in American immigration; it should be owned and read by everyone contemplating doing research in the field of American immigration.

The argument that runs through this study, that American immigration policy is ad hoc, at best rushing to catch up with external forces, is amply illustrated. The importance given to family reunification is unsurprisingly identified as one of the two great weaknesses of American immigration law. The response to refugee and illegal migration, in recent years to validate illegal settlement with ex post amnesties, is the other. Briggs argues that as a result of these policies the number of immigrants has exceeded any reasonable upper limit, and that the human capital of the immigrants is unsuited for an economy that demands ever higher levels of skill.

The second argument that follows from the first is that mass immigration impedes the labor market progress of American blacks. This argument undoubtedly has validity. For instance, Briggs stresses the geographic and economic mobility of blacks with the entry of the U.S. into the First World War and the cessation of the third wave of mass immigration. He also notes that recent immigrants tend to settle, and to compete for jobs, in many of the urban areas that also have large black populations.

When the argument turns from being more strictly historical, however, it becomes less well supported and less satisfactory. Was the end of mass immigration following 1914 either necessary or sufficient for the move of blacks from Southern agriculture to Northern factories? If immigrants and blacks compete in urban centers, what explains the differential labor market success of different groups?--to what extent are immigrants and native-born minorities substitutes or complements in the labor market? These are important questions left unaddressed. Briggs also assumes in his arguments that immigrants only take jobs; do they not also generate jobs through their consumption? On this and some other points the reader might well look at Julian Simon's The Economic Consequences of Immigration |1~ or the recent Urban Institute study, Immigrant Categories and the U.S. Job Market: Do They Make a Difference?, |2~ to get alternative views. Briggs is too quick in dismissing the studies of others who find only minor adverse domestic labor markets effects as a result of the "fourth wave" of |current~ mass immigration or who find immigration to be beneficial. Examples include his treatment in chapter 2 of Simon's work and his dismissal in chapter 7 of studies by the Rand Corporation and an earlier study by the Urban Institute.

Chapters 7 and 8 are generally disappointing. Here, for instance, one reads about displaced domestic agricultural workers who are forced to seek work in the non-agricultural sector on a catch-as-catch-can basis; yet there is no explanation of how this relates to southwest U.S. growers' demands for programs allowing temporary inflows of immigrants to help with harvesting perishable crops. Here also Briggs goes far afield from the issues of immigration to argue for managed trade and a domestic industrial policy. He argues in favor of limited entry for needed skilled workers while arguing at the same time against the new "investor immigrant" category--which he sees as a "source of shame." Briggs states, "Rewarding personal greed should have no place in the nation's immigration system." Why "greed," rather than "self-interest," is left for the reader to decipher. Why entry on the basis of human capital can be acceptable while entry on the basis of financial capital is shameful likewise is left unclear. Here also Briggs continues with his theme that domestic civil rights policies and immigration policies are inextricably intertwined, and he offers a standard which he finds necessary for immigration policy, "Any public policy--including immigration policy--needs to be carefully examined to be certain that it does not in any way reduce domestic pressures to address the needs of native born blacks". Since immigration legislation has failed that standard he alleges that for blacks "it is likely that immigration policy has become the latest manifestation of institutionalized racism."

These criticisms should not diminish the importance of this book. Its basic thesis is well documented, it deals with a public issue that becomes more pressing by the day, and it is in every sense of the word a "serious" study worthy of the attention of professionals, citizens, and policy makers. Economists and other professionals will recognize and not be misled by the rhetorical lapses. Others to whom the book is also addressed, however, may mistake some of the author's personal conjectures for an agreed upon expert consensus.


1. Simon, Julian. The Economic Consequences of Immigration. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1989.

2. Sorensen, Elaine, Frank D. Bean, Leighton Ku, and Wendy Zimmerman. Immigrant Categories and the U.S. Job Market: Do They Make a Difference? Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 1992.
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Author:Dunlevy, James A.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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