The Center for Immigration Studies recently issued two reports that show how transformative mass immigration has been in recent decades. The first study focused on the number of immigrants now living in the United States. Recent data from the Census Bureau show that 3.3 million immigrants, both legal and illegal, came to America between July 2010 and July 2013. After subtracting for emigration and death, the Census Bureau concluded that the immigrant population grew by 1.4 million in that three-year period. At the end of July 2013, there were 41.3 million immigrants living in the United States, the highest number ever recorded. That translates into 13.1 percent of the population, the highest percentage since 1921. The countries that saw the biggest increase in the number of their citizens coming to America during that time frame were India, China, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Jamaica, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iraq. Tough economic times have not stemmed the tide; 7.5 million immigrants have settled in the United States since the Great Recession began in 2007.
No one can reasonably criticize the United States for not taking in immigrants in recent decades. Today’s immigrant population is double that of 1990, nearly triple that of 1980, and quadruple that of 1970. The Migration Policy Institute reports that a whopping 20 percent of all international immigrants reside here, even though the United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population.
The second CIS report noted that 20 percent of all Americans—or 61.8 million people—now speak a language other than English at home. That figure encompasses nearly half of California schoolchildren and a third of the schoolchildren in Texas and Nevada. And this cultural phenomenon is further elucidated by a Pew Research Center survey, which shows that 75 percent of Hispanics believe that it is very important for future generations living in America to speak Spanish, while 45 percent of Asian immigrants feel the same about their native tongues. This includes 68 percent of second-generation Hispanics and 37 percent of second-generation Asians.
The last time America was faced with such an immigration boom we ended it, with the Immigration Act of 1924. President Coolidge, who signed the act, declared that “America must be kept American.” The effect of that legislation was to aid the assimilation of the millions who had come through Ellis Island (including six of my great-grandparents). The Ellis Island immigrants were expected to become Americans, and the sons of those immigrants who fought under Patton and MacArthur certainly thought of themselves as Americans. Indeed, in contrast to today’s immigrants, my family made a conscious decision not to pass along the ancestral tongues, because, as older relatives told me, people who live in America should “speak American.” The assimilation of the Ellis Island immigrants may have been imperfect, but there is a world of difference between a Major Hassan murdering his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood and the Italian immigrants who landed in Sicily and used their knowledge of the language to persuade the Sicilians to help us.
There is even more need for such an assimilation-aiding immigration moratorium today. The current immigrants come from countries far more different from the United States than the lands of Eastern and Southern Europe that fueled our last immigration boom. And America today is far less self-confident and far less willing to impose her traditions on newcomers than was the America of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge’s America recognized that the only legitimate criterion for assessing immigration was whether it was beneficial to America and Americans. Today, far too many people believe that foreigners have the right to come to America, whether that is in our interest or not. Indeed, as Kevin Michael Grace has observed, some believe that even diseases have the right to come to America, as shown by Obama’s refusal to ban air travel from Ebola-infected areas, even though many African countries have put such restrictions in place.
None of the likely presidential candidates for 2016 is calling for an immigration moratorium. But maybe some enterprising candidate will seize on public unease over immigration to make this an issue. The August Gallup poll showed that immigration was cited as the “biggest problem” facing the country by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and even among Democrats only two other issues took precedence. It is past time for another president like Silent Cal. Eventually, the descendants of today’s immigrants might even be grateful for such an immigration moratorium, just as my relatives were grateful for the strong and cohesive America the Immigration Act of 1924 sought to preserve.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.