When Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida announced his plans earlier this year to sue the federal government for the cost of illegal immigrants to his state, he nearly made a huge mistake. He almost tried to sue for the cost of all immigrants, legal and illegal. Chiles apparently thought that the burden of providing public education and health care to Florida’s newcomers outweighed the enormous economic advantages they have brought to the state over the last four decades. It was a crazy idea-before the influx of Cubans to South Florida, Miami was a sleepy resort for New Yorkers-but the fact that he even considered it, however briefly, speaks volumes about the public’s perception of immigrants.

Americans have a lot less to worry about than they think. Almost every indicator used to assess immigrants-welfare use, job displacement, wage depression-turns out to the immigrants’ advantage. Contrary to popular perception, they don’t overuse welfare, widely displace native workers, or depress wages. When any of these matters is addressed in a meaningful way, the good news is clear. Thanks to Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel of the Urban Institute, we now have a tremendously useful guide to these questions in Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight . They surely could have come up with a more creative title for their slim volume, but they could not have done a much better job in gathering data, interpreting them, and presenting their findings in a user-friendly format.

Take welfare. To say that immigrants receive welfare at a greater rate than natives is strictly true, but tells us surprisingly little. For starters, about 16 percent of refugees, who account for about one of every seven legal immigrants, use welfare. The native rate is just over 4 percent, according to the 1990 census. Refugees, of course, have a strong claim for special assistance. They gain admission to the U.S. because of a well-founded fear of persecution in their homelands. Refugee policy is not driven by the self-interest of family reunification or economic advantage, as are most immigrant admissions, but rather by moral and humanitarian concerns. Aid programs for refugees are certainly in need of dramatic reform-the government should guarantee loans rather than subsidize handouts-but without some improved alternative, refugees’ reliance on public assistance is understandable.

By removing refugees from the mix, Fix and Pasel find that non-refugee immigrants of working age use welfare at a rate of less than 3 percent- nearly one and a half points below the native rate. While it is unfortunate that they need to rely upon welfare at all, immigrants are clearly not abusing the system.

One area in need of quick reform, as the Urban Institute study shows, is the rapidly increasing use of public assistance among elderly immigrants. More than one-quarter of non-refugee immigrants over the age of sixty-five now receive welfare, typically Supplemental Security Income. In the future, Congress would be wise to make sure that citizens and legal residents who sponsor the admission of an elderly family member attend to that person’s financial needs, rather than rely on government support.

Fix and Passel’s coverage of education levels, economic impacts, and population projections is equally enlightening and suggests that, on the whole, we have many reasons to be grateful for the current wave of immigrants, which leaves open the question of why so many Americans seem to harbor resentments against them. Most recent polls show that over 60 percent of the public would like to see a reduction in current immigration levels (in 1993, the U.S. admitted 904,000 legal immigrants, including 113,000 refugees). With Congress probably moving toward some kind of immigration legislation in 1995, the restrictionists will certainly try to have their way.

What underlies all of the anxiety? Partly a traditional American animosity toward immigrants. We have as a society never fully embraced them, even as our laws have willingly admitted them. We have always worried about the problem of assimilation, about whether immigrants would “fit in.” This is a longstanding concern. What is new, however, is what some people are calling the “browning” of America. Today’s immigrants are more racially diverse than ever before. The vast majority hail from Asia, the Caribbean, or Latin America. The number of sending countries with at least 100,000 foreign-born residents in the U.S. rose from twenty-one in 1970 to forty-one in 1990. Groups like the Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans can point to a long-standing presence in the U.S., but newcomers from Guatemala, Guyana, and Vietnam have considerably shorter traditions.

From 1951 to 1960, only 2.5 million immigrants, mostly European, traveled to our shores. Germany served as the largest feeder nation, the source of over 477,000 newcomers. Next came Canada, with just under 378,000. Today, Europeans account for less than one-fifth of the total. In 1992, Mexicans led the way among legal immigrants, followed by Vietnamese, Filipinos, former Soviets, and Dominicans. More Pakistanis made the trip than Germans, more Taiwanese than Canadians. And with more than two-thirds of all immigrants settling in just four states- California (38 percent), New York (14 percent), Florida (8 percent), and Texas (8 percent)-their populations are highly concentrated and visible.

As the historian of immigration Reed Ueda points out in Postwar Immigrant America: A Social History , population alarmists used to worry about an Anglo-Saxon “race suicide,” that is, that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were out-reproducing the native stock. Although we use more polite terms today, the notion of “race suicide” lives on. Journalists and advocacy groups openly declare a “majority minority” future for the U.S., but they should learn from our past experience that today’s racial and ethnic identities will not hold firm in the coming century. Mixed-race marriages have quadrupled over the last twenty years, reaching 1.2 million, or more than 2 percent of all marriages. They make up an even larger fraction of the marriages taking place today. As the children of these unions grow up, get married, and have their own children, the mixture will prove an even greater jumble. The question of who is black or white, Asian or Hispanic, will grow increasingly irrelevant.

In 1940, sociologists noted that only 16 percent of Catholics and 6 percent of Jews married outside their religious group. They began speaking of a “triple melting pot,” in which religion served as a barrier to complete assimilation. Nobody speaks of it anymore, however. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants are now common, and about half of all Jews now marry non-Jewish spouses. The new wall surrounding race will probably collapse as easily. Half of all Japanese Americans today marry somebody who is not Japanese. In 1989, there were 39 percent more births to exogamous couples consisting of one Japanese and one white parent than to endogamous couples of two Japanese American parents. We can observe similar trends among other Asian groups, as well as Hispanics. About half of all Mexican Americans in California now choose non-Hispanic spouses. The black-white divide remains sharp, but these kinds of marriages are also increasing.

Intermarriage rates among different ethnic groups have always been high. The vast majority of Americans who descend from northern and western European stock now claim multiple ancestry. That is, these people are not just German or Irish or English, but a mixture of all three and more. Most descendants of the former “new immigrants”-those who arrived roughly at the turn of the century-are beginning to cite more than one ethnic heritage. They are no longer exclusively Italian or Polish or Greek, but something more. We easily forget the staggering diversity of previous immigrant waves and assume, because most of them were white and European, that they all managed to share a common sense of identity. The truth is that at first they fought and struggled and displayed irrational ethnic hatreds. They were seen as distinctly different. “They also,” Ueda reminds us, “were classified racially as separate and inferior to Americans from northern Europe.”

This previous social reality has largely receded into the background today, thanks largely to high levels of “miscegenation.” More and more Americans now identify with a new supra-ethnic category they call ”American,” whose members come from many different backgrounds. In the 1990 Census, over thirteen million Americans reported their ancestry as ”American” or “United States.”

This successful assimilation, writes Ueda, “was a precondition for opening admissions to all regions of the world . . . . The national fabric grew more complex in its forms of cohesion, developing a capacity to accept greater diversity.” He goes on to argue that the nationalization of ethnic politics has threatened this capacity, as immigrant advocacy groups increasingly pressure the federal government to micromanage race relations through affirmative action, voting rights, and curricular reform. “A type of sociological determinism holding that group identity ineluctably define[s] the characteristics and interests of individuals [has] gained ascendancy,” writes Ueda. This apparent rejection of the “weak and fluid boundaries between immigrant groups [that] have been the historical key to national cohesion” makes it “hard to sustain a vision of a greater nation that is more than a collection of groups and of a greater national destiny that is more than coexistence.”

This is a grim caution in an otherwise celebratory account of America’s ability to remake itself continually. Nevertheless, immigrants will assimilate, no matter what their purported leadership claims. The big question is whether their assimilation will outpace the government’s bumbling efforts to reinforce ethnic identities and the politicians’ attempts to stigmatize them as economically and culturally indelible. Ueda clearly thinks the immigrants will win out, if only because they have done so many times before. His compelling and optimistic history shows how anything else would profoundly betray the modern American identity, firmly rooted in its uprooted past.

John J. Miller is Associate Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community in Washington, D.C.