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Guarding the Golden Door by Roger Daniels (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 344 pages, $30)

Guarding the Golden Door gives an amazingly detailed historical perspective on the development of immigration policy in the United States, meticulously describing the often-bigoted attempts by Congress and various administrations to keep immigrants from entering the United States and analyzing how these measures have largely failed in their stated purposes.

Yet Guarding the Golden Door is not particularly forward-looking and addresses quite superficially two of the most interesting issues prospectively facing the United States vis-à-vis immigration.

First, both the public and policy-makers appear increasingly concerned about who is entering the country in the post-9/11 world. These fears seem to be pushing policy-makers to take relatively tough positions on prospective immigrants and have helped push to the back burner many efforts to liberalize immigration policy. The public’s current focus on the war on terrorism may have accounted, in part, for the somewhat icy reception given to both President George W. Bush’s recent initiatives aimed at illegal immigrants and to California’s aborted effort to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. However, as immigrant communities — in particular the various Latino communities — play an ever larger role in the American electoral process, politicians are attempting to walk a tightrope by addressing the public’s fears without appearing to bash immigrants.

Second, the looming deficits in the United States’ entitlement programs may push policy-makers to view immigration as a source of revenue to fund Social Security and other programs. Many politicians and pundits have recently spelled out the unattractive choice available to the United States to improve the long-term solvency of these programs — raise taxes or reduce benefits. A third choice, however, would be to boost revenue by increasing the number of working-age individuals paying payroll taxes. By drawing the working-age into the United States, immigration may help us partially fund our entitlement programs.

Aging demographics are pushing many developed countries to examine their entitlement policies, but only the United States appears to have the potential of partially funding the entitlement dilemma through immigration. President Bush’s recent immigration proposals could allow the federal government to collect tax revenues from millions of illegal immigrants in the United States who are currently earning an income without paying taxes. Incidentally, by formalizing the status of such immigrants, these policies may also force employers to pay their fair share of taxes on these employees. Guarding the Golden Door glosses over these issues, leaving the reader provoked but wishing for more.

After reading Guarding the Golden Door, one may wonder why any immigrant would choose to come to the United States. The book details the nation’s long muddled history with immigrants, focusing on policy attempts to limit immigration and the mistreatment of immigrant communities. These historical black eyes ranged from the horrific treatment of Japanese immigrants (and citizens) during the World War II era, to our refusal to open our shores to European Jewry during the Holocaust, to attempts to limit Chinese immigration and, more recently, to California’s experience with Proposition 187.

Given this history, Guarding the Golden Door interestingly proclaims that the United States has developed its own national mythology of being a safe haven for refugees and immigrants. Guarding the Golden Door quotes many politicians paying homage to this mythology. But the larger issue, which the book does not fully address, is whether it is possible for our national mythology to be accurate in light of our tortured history.

For one to focus solely on these negative experiences, however, is to emphasize the current American cultural obsession with victimhood at the expense of explaining why America may nonetheless truly be the Golden Door. To focus solely on American atrocities, or in some instances simply bad policy choices, paints a slanted picture without understanding why immigrants are continually washing over our shores and not over the shores of other developed nations. America alone seems to have the capacity to demographically reinvent itself. To be truly satisfying, Guarding the Golden Door would need a companion text to address the positive side of America and to explain its perpetual draw.

Ross Weiner is an in-house attorney in the San Francisco Bay area.

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