REPRESENTATIVE LAMAR SMITH of Texas calls his fierce anti-immigration bill, H.R. 2202, "The Immigration in the National Interest Act of 1995." As Smith reckons the national interest, the number of newcomers legally entering the United States each year must be cut to no more than two-10ths of 1 percent of the American population. And why must a nation numbering 260 million keep out all but 515,000 immigrants a year? That Smith has yet to explain.
Which is odd. It isn't customary to reverse 70 years of national policy -- H.R. 2202 would slash the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States for the first time since the 1920s -- in the absence of a compelling reason for doing so.
But then, reasons aren't required these days of those who want to keep would-be Americans out. The anti-immigration drums are being thumped by a large and diverse percussion section, one that includes liberals (Bill Clinton, Barbara Jordan) as well as conservatives (William F. Buckley, Pat Buchanan). That fewer immigrants equals a better America seems to be taken for granted. The burden of proof, it appears, is on those of us who hold otherwise.
Frankly, I don't know what would change the minds of people who have convinced themselves that immigrants are ruining this country. I do know that 22,000 murders are committed in the United States each year, and in nearly every case the killer is a native-born citizen. About 150,000 rapes are reported, and almost all the rapists are US natives. A half-million teen-age girls give birth out of wedlock, and the overwhelming majority of them -- and of the irresponsible males who got them pregnant -- are US-born. Ruining this country? Not the immigrants.
In Boston's 17 public high schools, 10 of the 1995 valedictorians were born overseas. This is now routine; it would be news if immigrants didn't dominate the honors list. Each year, more than one-third of the winners of the famed Westinghouse Science Talent Search come from immigrant families. In Silicon Valley, one of every three engineers and microchip designers is foreign-born, and one of every four high-tech firms was founded by immigrants. Koreans in Los Angeles are three times more likely than the general population to be self-employed entrepreneurs. The number of businesses started by Cuban immigrants in Miami exploded thirtyfold between 1967 and 1990.
With all respect to Emma Lazarus, most immigrants are not the "wretched refuse" of "teeming shores." They are some of the best, brightest, most self-motivated, hardest-working people on earth. They have brains and muscles and enthusiasm and optimism, and they dream the American Dream with an intensity that far too many native citizens never know. "For more than a century," Cato Institute economist Stephen Moore has noted, "immigration has been a process by which America skims the cream of other nations' human capital." If that isn't in the national interest, pray, what is?
Well, according to the "Immigration in the National Interest of 1995 Act," separating husbands and wives is. Section 632 of the bill would bar any citizen from bringing a foreign-born spouse or child to the United States unless that citizen's income is at least 200 percent of the poverty level. The National Immigration Forum illustrates the impact:
"Philip, a native of Illinois, was widowed two years ago. He spent this summer in France with his two young children." There, "he fell in love with Michelle. They married in Paris in August and now he wants to bring Michelle to the US. Philip lives comfortably with his children and his mother on his $35,000 income. His new wife, a gourmet chef, speaks English fluently and expect to find a job easily." But because $35,000 isn't double the poverty level for a family of five, Philip "cannot bring his new wife to the United States."
Also in the national interest as defined by Smith's bill is a crackdown on refugees. Following the recommendation of Barbara Jordan's keep-'em-out Commission on Immigration Reform, H.R. 2202 would cap refugee admissions at 50,000 -- less than half the number permitted for 1995. That is fewer than the number of fans at a typical NFL football game. To those who admire the Bush/Clinton policy of shoving boat people back out to sea, shutting the door on refugees has clear appeal. But how does it advance our national interest to forfeit one of the wellsprings of America's moral leadership -- the tradition of offering haven to those fleeing persecution, a tradition that began 375 years ago with the arrival of the "boat people" commemorated by that rock in Plymouth?
Smith's bill mandates "biometric identifiers" (fingerprints and retina scans) for Mexican businessmen who regularly enter the United States. And the exclusion of any foreign-born child, age 21 or older, of a US citizen. And a total ban on "unskilled" workers, however willing to work (a provision that would have kept out most immigrants in US history). And a federal computer database to monitor every hiring decision in the United States. And more.
H.R. 2202 is frigid, statist, shortsighted, xenophobic. One thing it is not is "in the national interest." That description applies to immigration, not to a bill that would choke it off.