restricted access A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (review)
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A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. By Aristide R. Zolberg (New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, 2006. viii plus 658 pp. $39.95).

In 2007, frenzy over undocumented immigrants in the United State catapulted immigration high on the public agenda. Despite a bipartisan proposal worked out by senior Senators, Congress's attempt to pass immigration reform legislation in May ended in fiasco. This Congressional meltdown in the face of the complexities of immigration policy reflected much more than indecisiveness, partisan bickering, or incompetence. Rather, it illustrated the contradictions and themes that have marked the politics of immigration in the United States for more than a century. This lineage will prove unmistakable to readers of Aristide R. Zolberg's America by Design, which reveals why immigration proves so intractable a political issue, even if Zolberg's realism offers little guidance for surmounting the obstacles to coherent and humane policy.

Readers will find in the book a variety of themes that resonate with what they read in the newspapers, see on TV, or encounter in conversation. Whenever ethnically or culturally strange immigrants have reached U.S. shores, Americans have reacted with defensive nativism based as much, or more, on racialized cultural concerns as on economics. The politics of response have brought together "strange bedfellows," uniting, as today, fragments of conservative and liberal groups customarily political opponents. The preferred policy option has been some variant of "remote control" designed to prevent immigrants from stepping foot on the boat or airplane rather than stopping or deporting them once they reached the U.S. Federal government policies, moreover, have differentiated among classes of immigrants: those entering legally, through the front door, by way of quotas or legislated preferences; refugees for whom a side door opened after World War II; or the backdoor through which the undocumented have slipped in for decades. Attempts to close the backdoor have proved singularly unsuccessful, even counterproductive, raising questions about the efficacy and unintended consequences of whatever legislation Congress finally passes now. Indeed, the dismaying inability of political authorities to accurately predict the impact of immigration legislation leaps out from Zolberg's history.

In recent years, the history of immigration has attracted talented scholars who have transformed the field. Their work makes Zolberg's synthesis possible, as he acknowledges and as his massive endnotes attest. Readers conversant with the new historiography will not be surprised at many of Zolberg's observations, such as his analysis of how immigration politics produces "strange bedfellows," which resembles Daniel Tichenor's in Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in the United States (2002). Zolberg, however, does more than synthesize this new literature; he uses it to advance his own bold thesis. The result is a magisterial survey of the history of U.S. immigration policy from the Colonial period to the present. [End Page 759]

The title of his book captures Zolberg's primary thesis:

From the moment they managed their own affairs, well before political independence, Americans were determined to select who might join them, and they have remained so ever since. Immigration policy, broadly conceived in this book to encompass not only entry but also related processes that affect the nation's composition, thus emerged from the outset as a major instrument of nation-building...s


Zolberg, as this quotation makes clear, takes a capacious view of immigration that embraces the identity, distribution, and numbers of people Americans have wanted to compose their nation. This broad view—most evident in his discussions of periods prior to the twentieth-century—constitutes one of the book's strengths. For Zolberg brings together strands in writing about population - immigration, slavery, internal migration -usually artificially separated in the academic literature. As in his discussion of the manipulation of land policy to attract both immigrants and native-born settlers, Zolberg incorporates these generally distinct literatures into one framework, although, again, more so for the years prior to the twentieth-century than for recent history.

Zolberg rejects the dominant scholarly narrative of immigration policy, which holds that the nation's relaxed attitude toward immigration resulted in virtually...