Opinion: The Generational Cycle Is Turning on Immigration

Morley Winograd (left) and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of "Millennial Makeover: My Space, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics."
National Journal
July 16, 2012, 5:46 a.m.

Amer­ic­ans have been of two minds about im­mig­ra­tion al­most since the found­ing of the Re­pub­lic. On the one hand, we swell with pride at the wel­com­ing words of Emma Laz­arus’s Statue of Liberty son­net: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearn­ing to be free,” and cov­er­age of the swear­ing in of new cit­izens from around the globe has be­come a staple of Ju­ly Fourth tele­vi­sion news­casts.

By con­trast, each new large wave of new­comers has led to the emer­gence of nat­iv­ist groups and to laws de­signed to min­im­ize im­mig­ra­tion. The ar­rival of mil­lions of Ger­man and Ir­ish im­mig­rants be­fore the Civil War led to the cre­ation of the anti-im­mig­rant Or­der of the Star Spangled Ban­ner and the elect­or­al suc­cesses of the Amer­ic­an (or Know Noth­ing) Party in 1854 and 1856. The waves of East­ern and South­ern European im­mig­rants in the late-19th and early-20th cen­tur­ies pro­duced a re­viv­al of the Ku Klux Klan and the pas­sage of a 1924 law, which im­posed low na­tion­al­ity quotas on im­mig­rants from that part of Europe as well as Asia and Africa. 

But his­tory also in­dic­ates that, al­though mixed at­ti­tudes about it may en­dure, con­cern with im­mig­ra­tion and fear of im­mig­rants rises and falls as new gen­er­a­tions with dif­fer­ent at­ti­tudes emerge. 

A Feb­ru­ary na­tion­al sur­vey of nearly 1,500 Amer­ic­ans between the ages of 18 and 64, con­duc­ted by com­mu­nic­a­tion re­search firm Frank N. Ma­gid As­so­ci­ates, sug­gests that the United States is about to enter a peri­od in which the de­bate about im­mig­ra­tion should be­come less con­ten­tious, primar­ily be­cause of the in­creas­ing pres­ence with­in the elect­or­ate of the tol­er­ant and di­verse mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, a co­hort now in its teens and 20s. Mil­len­ni­als will rep­res­ent one out of every three eli­gible voters by the end of this dec­ade.  

Ac­cord­ing to Ma­gid, about three in 10 Amer­ic­ans are com­pletely op­posed to all im­mig­ra­tion — leg­al and il­leg­al — while an identic­al num­ber per­ceive a need for even un­doc­u­mented im­mig­ra­tion, be­liev­ing that “the United States needs il­leg­al im­mig­rants to do work oth­ers won’t.”

The at­ti­tudes of oth­er Amer­ic­ans fall between these ex­tremes. The ma­jor­ity agree that “im­mig­ra­tion has made Amer­ica a great coun­try” and that “im­mig­ra­tion is an Amer­ic­an leg­acy worth keep­ing.” About 43 per­cent would fa­vor mak­ing their com­munity “im­mig­rant friendly.” At the same time, 71 per­cent say that while they fa­vor leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, “il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion is out of con­trol.” Just over 40 per­cent agrees that “im­mig­ra­tion is mak­ing Amer­ica worse,” while only 30 per­cent dis­agrees.

Mil­len­ni­als, on the oth­er hand, tend to be more pos­it­ive about im­mig­rants. For most mil­len­ni­als, im­mig­ra­tion is not an ab­stract or aca­dem­ic mat­ter. It is as up close and per­son­al as their par­ents, their friends, their class­mates, and their next-door neigh­bors. Nearly one out of five of them have at least one im­mig­rant par­ent, and al­most 30 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als are His­pan­ic or Asi­an — groups con­tain­ing large num­bers of re­cent im­mig­rants.

As a res­ult, mil­len­ni­als agree more strongly than older gen­er­a­tions that “im­mig­ra­tion is an Amer­ic­an leg­acy worth keep­ing,” 57 per­cent to 52 per­cent. The ma­jor­ity, 51 per­cent, also agrees that their com­munity should be “im­mig­rant friendly,” com­pared with 39 per­cent of older gen­er­a­tions.

They are also less likely to be­lieve than their eld­ers that “il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion is out of con­trol,” 67 per­cent to 75 per­cent. Mil­len­ni­als are also likely to ac­cept the pro­pos­i­tion that the coun­try “needs il­leg­al im­mig­rants to do the work oth­ers won’t,” 37 per­cent to 22 per­cent of older gen­er­a­tions.

Gen­er­a­tion­al the­ory says it is the his­tor­ic role of “civic” gen­er­a­tions, such as today’s mil­len­ni­als and last cen­tury’s GI gen­er­a­tion, to be the co­hort in which the ac­cul­tur­a­tion and tol­er­a­tion of new­comers to Amer­ica reaches its apex.

A ma­jor theme of GI gen­er­a­tion writers ran­ging from nov­el­ist Her­man Wouk, (Mar­jor­ie Morn­ing­star), to play­wright Neil Si­mon (Biloxi Blues , Brighton Beach Mem­oirs) and so­ci­olo­gist Will Her­berg (Prot­est­ant, Cath­ol­ic, Jew) was the de­pic­tion of the way in which GIs of vari­ous eth­ni­cit­ies emerged from their im­mig­rant homes and neigh­bor­hoods to achieve ac­cept­ance with­in the lar­ger so­ci­ety.

In 1965, it was a GI gen­er­a­tion-dom­in­ated Con­gress and GI pres­id­ent, Lyn­don John­son, that passed im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion over­turn­ing the na­tion­al­ity quotas es­tab­lished in 1924. Now, as a new eth­nic­ally di­verse civic gen­er­a­tion emerges in large num­bers, Amer­ic­an polit­ics will re­new its cyc­lic­al rhythm and re­turn to policies that once again tol­er­ate and in­clude im­mig­rants from every part of the globe.  

Mor­ley Wino­grad and Mi­chael D. Hais are coau­thors of the newly pub­lished Mil­len­ni­al Mo­mentum: How a New Gen­er­a­tion is Re­mak­ing Amer­ica and Mil­len­ni­al Makeover: MySpace, You­Tube, and the Fu­ture of Amer­ic­an Polit­ics; they also are fel­lows of NDN and the New Policy In­sti­tute.

Full dis­clos­ure: Mi­chael D. Hais re­tired in 2006 as vice pres­id­ent of en­ter­tain­ment re­search from Frank N. Ma­gid As­so­ci­ates after a 22-year ca­reer with Ma­gid and con­tin­ues to do oc­ca­sion­al work for the firm.

Opin­ions and oth­er state­ments ex­pressed by Per­spect­ives con­trib­ut­ors are theirs alone, not Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s. Con­tent cre­ated by third-party con­trib­ut­ors is their sole re­spons­ib­il­ity, and its ac­cur­acy is not en­dorsed or guar­an­teed.

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