rom Mississippi to Minnesota these days, there's hardly a heartland city without a Peruvian restaurant, West African hair-braiding place or Korean green grocer. Asians are now the country's fastest-growing ethnic minority group. Hispanic people will soon be the biggest one, outnumbering African-Americans by a wide margin. Nearly one in five children born today has at least one foreign-born parent.
America's "second great migration" has prompted as much controversy as the first, which brought millions of Europeans to Ellis Island. Are immigrants one reason that America's economy has been the world's most vibrant for nearly two decades? Or are they to blame for the stagnant wages of America's unskilled workers and the growing gap between haves and have-nots? Are the newcomers models of hard work, thrift and old-fashioned family values, or deadbeats who evade taxes and collect welfare? Will their children and grandchildren join the economic mainstream or wind up in the underclass?
There are no cut and dried answers. But for an impressively researched, brightly written and tightly argued polemic against America's current liberal immigration policy, look at "Heaven's Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy" (Princeton University Press, 1999) by George J. Borjas, one the nation's leading -- and certainly gloomiest -- experts on immigration.
Borjas himself is a shining example of the classic immigrant rags to riches story. A refugee from Cuba who grew up in a Miami ghetto, he wound up with an Ivy League education and today holds a Harvard professorship. But in "Heaven's Door," Borjas calls for sharply restricting the number of future immigrants, especially those who, as his own family was in the early '60s, are poor, unskilled and uneducated.
"My family would never have been able to pass the test that I think would best serve the interests of the United States," he writes. "There were no college graduates in my family, no wealth to prove that we would not become public charges, no particular skills that would seem urgently needed."
Since the '60s, as Borjas tells it, family ties rather than education, skills or national origin have determined which foreigners get to pursue the American dream. As a result, two-thirds of the recent arrivals have come from Latin America and Asia.
Four out of 10 wind up in the bottom one-fifth of the income distribution. And, by the late 1990s, the average new arrival had two fewer years of schooling than the average native-born American. In contrast, 30 years ago, most immigrants came from Europe, and the average newcomer was ahead in education.
Borjas acknowledges that, despite a "precipitous decline" in average skills, immigration is keeping an aging work force younger than it would otherwise be, and has, on the whole, been good for the economy.
Unskilled immigrants provide employers with bargain-priced labor and provide middle-class consumers with bargain-priced services from baby-sitting to nursing-home care.
But, reflecting a growing unease among economists over inequality, he argues that while immigration has increased the total economic pie modestly, the far more significant effect has been to depress opportunity and pay for the most disadvantaged native-born workers, especially African-Americans.
"The central issue in the debate therefore," he says, "is not whether immigration increases the size of the economic pie; it is about how the pie is split."
Perhaps. But immigration has not been a major reason that wages at the bottom have stagnated for more than two decades. Rather, the computer age has rewarded the college-educated and punished high school dropouts. Further, Borjas is overly jaundiced in his views. He scarcely acknowledges that unemployment is at a 30-year low, that poverty is at an all-time low while typical family income is at a record, or that bottom-rung wages have lately been rising briskly.
True, the pay of low-wage native workers would no doubt have risen even sooner and faster absent immigration, but the extra supply of willing labor has also helped keep inflation at bay and therefore allowed the economic expansion to keep rolling.
Further, Borjas argues that the sheer number and concentration of immigrants are creating the same ghetto effect that has marginalized inner-city blacks. But immigrants have lately been fanning out all over the country.
The education gap is real, and Borjas is probably right in concluding that it will take several generations to erase. But he plays down some of recent immigrants' strengths -- strong family ties and a super work ethic -- that augur well for upward mobility.
Hispanics have employment rates nearly as high as whites, and, as a 1998 study showed, second-generation children have higher grades and lower dropout rates than other American children.
Few people, even the most ardent free marketeers, would argue that America should open its doors to every Third World citizen who wants to emigrate. Immigration confers permanent and scarce political and economic rights.
But the case for cutting immigration in half and largely limiting it, as some countries do, to the well heeled and well educated is not nearly so economically -- much less morally or politically -- compelling as Borjas would have you believe.