Who Should Get In?

America's Demography in the New Century: Aging Baby Boomers and New Immigrants as Major Players

by William Frey and Ross DeVol
Milken Institute, 62 pp., $10.00 (paper, also available at www.milkeninstitute.org)

Immigration from Mexico: Assessing the Impact on the United States

by Steven Camarota
Center for Immigration Studies, 64 pp., $12.00 (paper)

America’s first immigrants, the ancestors of today’s Indians, came from North Asia at least 13,000 years ago. They spread quickly across North and South America, but their numbers remained low. In 1600 Western Europe had at least ten and perhaps a hundred times more people per square mile than what is now the United States.1 Once Northern Europeans began to appreciate the military and economic implications of this demographic imbalance, a second wave of immigrants started coming to America. By 1700 roughly 250,000 Northern Europeans were living along the Atlantic coast. By 1890 Northern Europeans and their American descendants had spread across the entire continent and numbered more than fifty million.

Migration from Northern Europe slowed after 1890, but the growth of American manufacturing had already begun to attract a third wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. This wave peaked just before World War I and ended in 1924, when Congress established strict quotas based on national origin. In 1965 Congress adopted a new system of quotas, which admitted some people with scarce skills, some political refugees, and a lot of people with relatives in the United States. This new system led to a fourth wave of immigration from Latin America, the West Indies, and Asia. This wave has grown steadily since 1965. If it continues to grow at the same rate, post-1965 immigrants and their descendants will make up almost half the total population by 2050.

The revival of immigration poses many questions, but I will concentrate on only three. Here I discuss what recent scholarship can tell us about the way successive waves of immigrants have affected the people already living in the United States. A subsequent article will discuss how the children of recent immigrants are doing in the United States and why Congress has let the number of immigrants keep growing.


Large-scale immigration seldom leaves a region’s native population untouched. Soon after the first Indians’ arrival, most large North American mammals, including mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and camels, disappeared. Some experts blame these extinctions on climatic change. Others blame the Indians, who are said to have engaged in overhunting. Shepard Krech, an anthropologist at Brown University, assesses this long-running controversy in The Ecological Indian. Krech thinks that climatic change is a somewhat more plausible culprit than overhunting, but the issue is far from settled and new evidence keeps emerging.2 In any event, even those who blame the extinctions on climatic change agree that hunting reduced the life expec-tancy of many North American mammals. Given a choice, these mammals would surely have voted to send Homo sapiens back to Siberia.

Immigration from Europe clearly had catastrophic effects on the Indians. In 1492 the Indian population of today’s United States numbered at least two million. Krech guesses that the number was probably more like six million, and some writers propose even higher figures. By 1910, when the US Bureau of the Census made its first serious effort to count the Indians, it found only…

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