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"Among the White Moon Faces," the autobiography of Shirley Geok-lin Lim

"The Emigrants," by W.G. Sebald.

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An Issue That Won't Go Away

By Sanford J. Ungar

Sunday, December 15, 1996; Page X01

When Congress returns in January, immigration will once again be near the top of its agenda. Still pending is an effort to federalize California's Proposition 187 -- to give all the states the option (if not actually to encourage them) to ban illegal immigrants from using public health facilities and their children from attending public school.

Some politicians also want to legislate deep cuts in legal immigration, and many -- annoyed by the seeming proliferation of Spanish and other immigrant languages and mobilized by scare stories about bilingual education -- will push to make English the official national language of the United States.

There is little new in the debate over immigration, even if its ferocity seems greater today than at any time in recent memory. This country has agonized from the very start over how to define what it takes to become "an American" and who fits within the definition. Now, no less than before, facts often play a secondary role to emotions.

Here are some books that may help put the arguments about immigration into perspective:

"Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City," by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (MIT Press, 1963), is a classic study that refutes the old myth that Americans will assimilate so thoroughly that they will eventually be indistinguishable from each other. Related works include The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, by Michael Novak (Macmillan, 1972), and On Becoming American, by Ted Morgan (Houghton Mifflin, 1978).

"Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life," by Roger Daniels (Harper & Row, 1990), provides a useful and unemotional overview of immigration and how it has evolved. For a slightly less sanguine view, see A Nation of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics and the Populating of America, by Ellis Cose (Morrow, 1992).

"Structuring Diversity: Ethnographic Perspectives on the New Immigration," edited by Louise Lamphere (University of Chicago Press, 1992), offers compelling, if somewhat detached, case studies of several of the newer immigrant groups.

The granddaddy of the new wave of restrictionist books is "The Immigration Time-Bomb: The Fragmenting of America," by Richard Lamm and Gary Imhoff (Dutton, 1985). Lamm, as governor of Colorado and later as a new-wave gadfly and alternative presidential candidate, has gone far with his argument that increased immigration is creating a new underclass and threatening a population explosion. Following in Lamm's tradition are "Alien Nation," by Peter Brimelow (Random House, 1995), and "The Case Against Immigration," by Roy Beck (Norton, 1996) (Ed. note: you can read the first chapter of "The Case Against Immigration" online). Brimelow, a former British journalist now living in the United States, believes that he (or someone much like him in race and ethnicity) should be the last American immigrant; Beck blames newcomers for economic and environmental degradation.

On the other side, "The Economic Consequences of Immigration," by Julian Simon (Blackwell/Cato Institute, 1989), makes a strong case for the valuable contributions of immigrants. So does "Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight," by Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel (Urban Institute, 1994).

For a balanced selection of the political and economic arguments on the issue, there is "Still an Open Door? U.S. Immigration Policy and the American Economy," by Vernon M. Briggs Jr. and Stephen Moore (American University Press, 1994), and "Arguing Immigration: The Debate Over the Changing Face of America," edited by Nicolaus Mills (Touchstone, 1994).

Among the many descriptions of life along the border with Mexico, "Cutting for Sign," by William Langewiesche (Pantheon, 1993), is one of the best. "Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America," by David Rieff (Little, Brown, 1987), tells the story of the Cubans in South Florida. "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World," by the same author (Simon & Schuster, 1991), looks at the effect that immigrants from around the world have had on Southern California.

For a variety of experiences, see "Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish and Jewish Immigrants in the United States," by Matthew Frye Jacobson (Harvard University Press, 1995), and "Hmong: History of a People," by Keith Quincy (Eastern Washington University Press, 1988).

A particularly good overview of the transforming effect of immigration on the politics of America's most populous state can be found in "The Coming White Minority: California and America's Immigration Debate," by Dale Maharidge (Times Books, 1996). (It is reviewed on the facing page.)

In a time of torrid, but not necessarily enlightening, debate over immigration, a far more insightful and subtle reflection of immigrant life in America can often be found in fiction and film than in the political dialogue.

Dozens of novels and short-story collections on immigrant themes continue to be published in the United States every year. One of my personal favorites remains "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent," by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin, 1991). "Arranged Marriage," by Chitra Divakaruni (Doubleday, 1995) is one of the latest in a long line of works that have focused on the displacement experienced by immigrants from India. "Krik? Krak!," by Edwidge Danticat (Soho, 1995), describes the lives of Haitians in Florida and New York, while "Native Speaker," by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead, 1955) offers a glimpse inside the complex, often tragic experiences of Korean Americans.

In the recent cinema, "Lone Star," directed by John Sayles, goes a long way toward explaining why immigration is viewed so differently in Texas than it is in California. In telling the tale of three generations of a Mexican-American family, "Mi Familia," directed by Gregory Nava and narrated by Edward James Olmos, helps revise some frequently misreported history.

For a completely different perspective -- on the relationship between legal and illegal immigrants and on the disappointment some immigrants feel with this country -- a student of the issue could seek out "Someone Else's America," by Yugoslav director Goran Paskaljevic.

Sanford J. Ungar, dean of the School of Communication at American University, is the author of "Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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