Saturday, January 18, 2020


Week 40: Immigration

Mindful of the fact that Native Americans preceded Europeans on the North American continent in terms of permanent settlement, the United States of America is a nation of immigrants. It is in this context that I present to you, kind reader, this week’s blog.

Unlike other posts, I will plainly state my position on this week’s topic, immigration, prior to an examination of it. In principle, I am for open borders and unfettered immigration. You may rightly infer that, because I specified this to be a principle-based position, there is a pragmatic caveat. Sadly, it is a caveat that deals with a political reality in which open borders and unfettered immigration are rendered impossible, unjust and immoral.

A high-level review of U.S. immigration history reveals that immigration restrictions were largely designed and administered at the colony or state level from the mid-17th century until midway through the 19th century. During this time, voluntary and involuntary servitude (i.e., indentured servitude and slavery, respectively) were defining characteristics of American immigration. For the purpose of this week’s blog, I will write more broadly, leaving these specific topics for another week.

The first major federal restriction on immigration in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which essentially expanded the Page Act of 1875. The Page Act outlawed the immigration of Chinese women to the U.S., and the exclusion act expanded it to outlaw the immigration of all Chinese people. California pushed for the law, because Chinese immigrants were voluntarily willing to work for a lower wage than Californians in the hopes of building a better life than was possible in China.

In 1917, Congress passed legislation requiring literacy tests for immigrants aged 16 and older. Quotas began to be established in the 1920s, such as through the Quota Act of 1921, also known as the Emergency Quota Act, which was designed to mitigate impacts of the post-Great War recession and the influenza pandemic.

The Immigration Act of 1924, set specific percentages for quotas related to certain nationalities, while still maintaining prohibitions against immigrants from Asia, essentially taking the Quota Act to a new level.

From 1939-41, the State Department began implementing immigration restrictions outside the legislative process, clearing the path for future overreach of the Executive branch into activities that should be Legislative prerogatives.

Following World War II, immigration restrictions were eased in order to enable refugees from Europe, the Soviet Union and Cuba to come to the United States. The Truman Directive of 1945 gave Displaced Persons (i.e., refugees of the ravages of Nazism) priority in terms of immigration to the U.S. To a limited degree, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 codified into law the Truman Directive. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated nationality-based quotas and enabled U.S. citizens to sponsor the immigration of family members from abroad. In 1980, Congress passed the Refugee Act as a way to fulfill its obligations under the United Nations Refugee Protocol.

Here endeth the history lesson. Let us commence with the analysis.

In the early days of immigration enforcement, restrictions were focused primarily on economic protectionism. State governments disallowed immigration in order to protect their citizens from competition for jobs. Even with the Chinese Exclusion Act, it wasn’t so much legislation fundamentally based on immigrant race or ethnicity as it was their competitive industriousness and their willingness to work for lower wages. Whether such restrictions were successful is debatable. I would content that such exclusionary policies hurt everyone, save, of course, the less industrious worker. Companies were denied less expensive labor. Hard working immigrants were denied the prospect of a better life. Because expensive labor was protected, the consumer was denied less expensive goods and services.

Interestingly, what appear to be purely xenophobic restrictions on immigration present themselves when the federal government inserts itself into policy development. Reading this, one may be inclined to accuse me of oversimplification. If so, please comment. While certainly a high-level analysis, I believe it is fundamentally accurate.

Over the years, a significant change has occurred in our nation that fundamentally impacts the nature of our society and immigration. America’s response to the Great Depression gave rise to a massive welfare state. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, followed up later by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies, let people at home and abroad know that the United States government was prepared and willing to step in and support people who could not or would not support themselves, an appropriate objective for a good and decent society but one previously (and in my opinion more appropriately) fulfilled by charitable individuals and organizations.

Prior to pseudo-socialist (I do not use the term “socialist” in the pejorative but rather as a neutral, accurate descriptor of political and economic organization.) programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, immigrants came to America to build a better life, reliant primarily on their own industriousness – the same reliance employed by people who were already American citizens. Immigration, based on this type of purpose-driven behavior, is what contributed to the wonderful, brilliant and inspirational renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries. A descriptor associated with this time is the American Dream. In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams described the American Dream thusly, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.”

In a post-individualism society, the expectation for personal responsibility and industry is watered down by the rationalization and even promotion of class victimhood and institutionalized sloth. These accepted, and in some circles, desired characteristics contribute to the bloating of the welfare state, a state designed to perpetuate the power of the ruling class. Let me be clear, in the vast majority of cases of people on welfare, I believe the primary factor that leads them to their present situation is government policy, policy that results in both intended and unintended perverse consequences, be it ineffective public education, discriminatory minimum wage laws or dysfunctional public health programs, to name a few. More on this in a future post. The bottom line is that the government is actively enticing good people to lives of dependence and unproductivity – good people at home and abroad.

Why are open borders and unfettered immigration impossible today? Economically, such an immigration policy is an unsustainable proposition. In the past, people came to American knowing full well that their success was based on their hard work. To be sure, most immigrants today come to this nation with the same expectation for themselves. They are a benefit to the economic health of the nation and the society. Today, the massive, permissive welfare state eliminates the need for intelligent risk, assuring those who cannot or choose not to work hard for a better life come to our shores through legal and illegal ports of entry. If we, as a society, entice people here, not by the opportunity that exists to pursue individual freedom and success but by the prospect of handouts, we are assured that programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (all projected to be insolvent in the not too distant future) will be overrun with more and more people. Again, I do not lay the blame at the feet of the people coming to our country for such benefits; they are acting in their own economic self-interest. I lay the blame at the feet of those in Congress, who have enacted legislation that has at its heart the most perverse of incentives. Without curtailing the massive welfare state, open borders and unfettered immigration would serve only to hasten the collapse of the programs of the welfare state (editorial comment: which may not be a bad thing), hurting millions upon millions who now rely on such programs for their very existence.

Why are open borders and unfettered immigration unjust today? Such immigration policy, which manifests itself today in illegal immigration, is unjust, because it essentially gives a free pass – or at least a shortcut – to people who choose to ignore our immigration laws and processes, consequently bypassing and punishing people who choose to immigrate through legal channels. For some who immigrate to the United States, they do so to escape the whims of dictators. They have lived in societies (societies heralded as great by some presidential candidates) that have no regard for the law and the protection it should provide. A hallmark of our culture in the United States has been an adherence to the law and a respect for the equal protection is theoretically should provide. When our immigration policy rewards people for violating the law, we erode a fundamental underpinning of our culture.

Why are open borders and unfettered immigration immoral today? Let us reflect on the words of Emma Lazarus in her sonnet, The New Colossus, which we may know as the poem at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. She wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In today’s discourse, people tend to focus on the “tired” and “poor.” They miss the important concept in this line, which is, “yearning to breathe free.” She did not write, yearning for dependence on the government, essentially trading one master for another. To breathe free…to be at liberty to pursue one’s own interests: to practice one’s faith, to speak one’s mind, to be secure in one’s home without restrictions or repercussions from the government. For many, the U.S. welfare state has replaced the notion of breathing free with the notion of dependency. Granted, we are all interdependent, but when dependency shifts from voluntary interaction among individuals to an involuntary relationship among people through the machinery of government, freedom is lost. Any system that erodes individual freedom and liberty is one that subjugates one person to another, creating a system of servitude and slavery. Is there anything more immoral than this? For this reason, open borders and unfettered immigration, which unfortunately does promote dependence and does expand the rolls of the welfare state, diminishes freedom and liberty. Therefore, in my opinion, such an immigration policy is immoral.

Regrettably, it is unlikely, if not impossible, to return to a time when our shores were open wide to the tired, the poor and the huddled masses, to the wretched refuse, the homeless and the tempest-tossed. Those, who the rest of the world persecuted and purged, are the very souls who made this nation the greatest in history of nations. To return to such a time, we would have to enact policies that promote individual freedom and industry. We would need to enact policies that return the provision of the essential safety net to the hands of charitable individuals and organizations – returning us to a culture of personal responsibility in which I am my brother’s keeper. Through government control and intervention, we now have a culture of being our brother’s master, promoted by what I believe are essentially involuntary arrangements.

As we listen to candidates, let us study their immigration proposals and determine which might best foster a culture of individual liberty and lead to a happy, self-reliant life. Let us evaluate their proposals and look for the ones that reinforce the notion that we are, indeed, a nation of laws – a nation of laws that respects those who respect the law.

Finally, I would suggest that we disregard the calls for open borders from other world leaders. It’s interesting to note that such leaders’ nations often have border policies much more restrictive than ours. One example is the Holy See. I am Catholic, and I really like our current Pope; however, he calls on the United States to open wide its borders to the poor and persecuted. This call is made from behind the walls of a city-state with some of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. I would only suggest we determine our policies toward immigration based on our history, our government and our economy. I hope this post helps frame that analysis.

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