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The Closing of America?

CAMBRIDGE – The United States is locked in debate over immigration. The state of Arizona recently enacted legislation that encourages local police to check the immigration status of people who were stopped for other reasons – and requires immigrants to produce proof of their legal status on demand.

The Obama administration has criticized the law, church groups have protested that it is discriminatory, and a federal court has issued a temporary injunction, ruling that immigration is a federal issue. Regardless of the outcome of the legal case, the Arizona law has proven to be popular in other states, and represents the rising importance of immigration as a political issue.

If the US turned inward and seriously curtailed immigration, there would be serious consequences for America’s position in the world. With its current levels of immigration, America is one of the few developed countries that may avoid demographic decline and keep its share of world population, but this might change if reactions to terrorist events or public xenophobia closed the borders.

Fears over the effect of immigration on national values and on a coherent sense of American identity have existed since the nation’s early years. The nineteenth-century “Know Nothing” Party was built upon opposition to immigrants, particularly the Irish. Asians were singled out for exclusion from 1882 onward, and, with the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, the influx of immigrants slowed for four decades.