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Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002 / 17 Tishrei, 5763

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Our rainbow underclass | The roll of honor read at the 9/11 ceremonies was a tapestry of America, of native-born Americans of all ethnic origins and more recent immigrants. Of course, we know too well that some of the assassins and others plotting against America were immigrants who betrayed our ideals, so it is natural that many people feel we should now close the door altogether, beginning with immigrants from Muslim countries. Natural, and wrong. What is long overdue, however, is a sustained national dialogue on immigration.

Most politicians fear offending blocs of votes-a cowardice that does not serve the country well. Immigration has been out of control since 1965, when Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced a "reform" bill that ended the historic basis of the American melting pot. It was a bill remarkable for the fact that every single one of the assurances he and others gave proved wildly wrong-not because they wanted to mislead but because the bill unleashed forces they did not foresee. Indeed, the ensuing Immigration Reform Act triggered an immigration explosion, involving millions more than any other period, plus millions of illegals. There was a gross miscalculation of the effect of basing entry on "family reunification"; the criterion of "immediate relatives" was lost in the daisy-chain effect of brothers sponsoring brothers sponsoring cousins. It was said the goal was not to upset "the ethnic mix of this country," but the opposite occurred. Traditional immigrants from northern and western Europe were discriminated against in favor of Third World immigrants.

Schooling is the ticket. What is more disturbing is that the longer these new immigrants stay in the country the worse they do, reversing the history of upward mobility in previous waves of immigration. Why? Traditionally, there were well-paid manufacturing jobs for immigrants, enabling them to join the ranks of blue-collar workers who secured a middle-class lifestyle without much formal education. Those days are gone. Schooling is today's ticket for a better future-with a high school diploma as the minimum. The original European newcomers could also send their children to high-quality urban schools. Assimilation was swift.

The immigrants, however numerous, were from many different countries, so they took to English more rapidly: There was no linguistic minority to dominate any large city the way Spanish speakers now dominate Miami and Los Angeles. Today Latino immigrants live in a subnation with their own radio and TV stations, newspapers, films, and magazines, stunting assimilation and diminishing economic opportunity. Mexican-born males, handicapped by low or nonexistent English ability, earn half of what non-Latino whites earn. Although Mexican immigrants are often perceived as highly reliable, disciplined workers, Harvard Prof. Christopher Jencks makes the point that "having the right attitude is often enough to get an $8-an-hour job; it is seldom enough to get one for $16 an hour."

A critical question that is almost never asked: What is the impact on the children, the second generation? Some thrive, but the majority do not. They form a rainbow underclass, caught in a cycle of downward assimilation, poverty combined with racial segregation. Often separated for long periods from their parents, especially their fathers, during the immigration process, they stop doing homework, reject their parents' values, and succumb to the dangers of an overcrowded inner-city culture. They face overwhelmed teachers, limited social service resources, and a decaying infrastructure, and they often adopt the negative behavior pattern of their peer groups, such as academic indifference and substance abuse, leading to dropout rates three times as high as for native-born Americans. Even the stellar performance of Asian children declines-studies show that by the third generation, Chinese students no longer exceed whites in educational success.

There is another disquieting connection, the trifecta effect of rising immigrant fertility rates. Our population is projected to rise to over 500 million by 2050, roughly double what America is today-with post-1965 immigrants and their descendants making up about half. The effect of these numbers on myriad aspects of our environment, from rush-hour traffic to air and water pollution and social tensions, is incalculable.

How, then, should we proceed? No matter what, we must find more resources for the schools and other institutions that will support the development of second-generation children. Second, we must rebalance the number of visas provided for extended-family programs and add more to attract immigrants with skills transferable to the information economy. Third, we should slow down the process until we can thoroughly assess how the children of today's immigrants will fare as adults. Only through such measures can a national consensus on these issues begin to be forged.

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JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman