Until five years ago, Beck was a reporter covering Congress for a Midwestern chain of newspapers. He still has a Midwestern twang despite his years inside the Beltway, and he has a disarming, easygoing manner atypical of other activists. In an hourlong telephone conversation, Beck doesn't once fall into deprecating statements about recent immigrants and expresses distaste for the kind of immigrant-bashing that occurred in California's 1994 passage of Proposition 187.
In Immigration by the Numbers, he reinforces that point. "The problem is not immigrants," he says, "it's the numbers of them."
To a spellbound audience, Beck quotes census figures to show the changing rates of immigration in the past seven decades. In the 40-year period between 1925 and 1965, for example, legal U.S. net immigration averaged 178,000 people per year.
Beck calls it The Golden Era of Immigration. "I can find no time in history when immigrants were so welcomed, when they assimilated so quickly or did so well," he says on the tape. "We became a middle-class society during that golden era of immigration," he says, and cites advances for African Americans as a byproduct of that period and its low immigration.
After major changes to immigration law in 1965, those numbers changed dramatically. Average legal migration in the period 1965 to 1989 rose to 500,000 per year. In the 1990s, that number has risen to 800,000. (Estimates of the numbers of illegals vary wildly, but tend to hover around 350,000 annually.)
Beck argues that those dates correlate with significant changes in the fortune of America's working and middle classes. In times of lower immigration, working Americans--particularly minorities--have made significant gains. In times of high immigration, he argues, those gains have been lost. The correlation is so strong, to Beck it suggests a causal link.
He then cites Census Bureau projections of how the American population will grow in the next 50 years. Making effective use of a large chart, Beck shows that the Census Bureau expects America's population, presently around 267 million people, to reach nearly 400 million people by the year 2050. Ninety percent of that growth, Beck says, will come from immigrants and their children.
In his audience, mouths drop open in astonishment.
And that's when he hits them with his pitch: Why not lower immigration to the 1925-65 rates, what Beck calls "traditional" immigration levels? If letting in fewer than 200,000 newcomers each year did so well for working Americans in that era, why couldn't it work now?
The presentation is effective, particularly because it seems to rely on irrefutable facts--numbers provided not by Beck but by the U.S. government.
But Beck does rely heavily on several assumptions that he doesn't elaborate on in his videotape (as well as glossing over such economic factors as The Great Depression, during which Beck seems to suggest great gains were made for the American middle class). How, for example, did Beck come to choose 1925 as the beginning of The Golden Era of Immigration, and what makes its levels of immigration more "traditional" than the century of immigration that preceded it?
"'Traditional' is an imprecise term," he admits. "That's one tradition we had. I use it because it's a time when things went very well . . . This is a subjective thing, calling it traditional."
He says that the tradition of earlier decades--a period that saw some of the highest immigration in the country's history--was disastrous.
"It was a terrible tradition in 1890 to 1925. Our teaching about immigration of that period is badly skewed. That period saw the creation of massive sweatshop systems. We had no sweatshops in 1965. Now we're becoming a country of sweatshops again," he says.
Eight million immigrants, many from southern and eastern Europe, entered the U.S. in the decade 1900-10, a level of immigration unmatched until the 1990s, which may exceed that number. The two periods do present other similarities; in both periods people who opposed such levels of immigration, but who did so for less noble motives than reformers such as Roy Beck, were alarmed not only by the number of newcomers but their places of origin. Some wondered if the huddled masses would ever assimilate and predicted that, concentrated in enclaves, they might not.
During World War I, those high immigration numbers came crashing down. Before they could climb again, Congress imposed strict limits which went into effect in 1925. Beck and his peers would like to see that repeated, if not for the same reasons.
Those limits--their sponsors and methods of imposition--reveal much about the jingoistic attitudes of a previous era, and the surprising connections that era has with the present.