Economists Love Immigration. Why Do So Many Americans Hate It?

In a democracy, a policy appraisal has to contend with political as well as economic consequences.
A family looks towards an abstract gateway made of collaged money.
We might exult in the economic advantages we owe to immigration, but migration and nativist backlash have stalked one another for more than a century.Illustration by Keith Negley
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On October 5, 1908, a hammy melodrama made its début in Washington, D.C.: Israel Zangwill’s “The Melting-Pot,” a four-act play that introduced the dominant metaphor for the American immigrant experience. The plot is thin—a New York tenement romance threatened by an Old World blood feud is mended by the salvific power of patriotism. Mostly, it’s a pretext for pontificating about a new American religion. “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!” the protagonist, a struggling Jewish composer named David Quixano, proclaims. “What is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”

The critics were mainly contemptuous. “Sentimental trash masquerading as a human document,” the New York Times judged. Across the Atlantic, the Times of London declared the play’s “rhapsodising over music and crucibles and statues of liberty” to be “romantic claptrap.” But when President Theodore Roosevelt attended the première he was utterly smitten. (“That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play!” he is said to have shouted.) The vivid allegory—of “souls melting in the Crucible” and divine fires purging inherited rivalries—imprinted something indelible on the American psyche.