Immigration has always been a fraught subject in America. We all know that except for Indigenous people (Native Americans), at some previous point all of the rest of us made the long journey to America from somewhere else. In the past 400 years, Europeans, Africans and Asians have filled up the continent to the tune of 334 million people. The liberals and the Democrats like to say, “We all came here from somewhere else, we were all once immigrants,” but their opponents reply that that was then, and acknowledging that fact doesn’t mean we cannot have honest concerns about how much immigration is now enough and at what pace.
As 2023 begins, there is, down on the southern border, a legal crisis, a geopolitical crisis, a political crisis, an economic crisis and a humanitarian crisis. Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California all report challenging social pressures from the sheer numbers gathered at the border or huddled just inside the U.S. in border towns. The governors of Florida and Texas seem to regard what is happening as a five-alarm fire. The debate over immigration — legal and illegal — is likely to dominate our national politics for the next couple of years, but only a blithering optimist would suggest that sensible immigration reform will find its way through Congress. There will be plenty of blame and name-calling and incendiary rhetoric, but actual reform seems exceedingly unlikely.
Which deepens and worsens the situation.
No National Policy Immigrants Can Count On
Much of the problem at the border is that the United States does not have a coherent, consistent and defensible immigration policy. Enforcement varies according to the level of public alarm and depending on which party or even which president is in power. Instead of enacting comprehensive immigration reform, the two parties settle for a war of words and rhetoric and mutual recriminations, thus forcing each president, each administration, to fill the vacuum with executive orders and executive interpretation of existing statutes. The result, for the poor immigrant, is a kind of semi-invisible roller coaster ride — no seat belts, radically mixed messaging from the U.S. government, chaos, confusion, frustration and loads of pain.
Every immigration scholar — from the bleeding heart left to the authoritarian right — agrees that if we had a consistent and comprehensible set of policies, at least potential immigrants would know what to expect and what they are up against. In the absence of a rational, humane and understandable policy, potential immigrants get themselves to the U.S. border and hope that — somehow, some way — legally or illegally, with enough gumption and luck, they will eventually get in and, once in, it will be very difficult for the United States ever to return them to their home countries or even find them for that matter.
The system is broken. It would be relatively easy to fix, but it would mean something like grandfathering in the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants, increasing the number of legal immigrants per year, clearing the immense backlog of immigration cases, including asylum cases, and finding the combination of electronic and physical barriers to prevent most illegal cross-border immigration.
The Paradox on the Pedestal
It was back in 1886 that the French gave us the Statue of Liberty, so perfectly poised in New York Harbor, the portal through which millions of people from all over the world have flowed into America in search of a better life. The French made the gift to honor the fact that France and America were the two principal republics in a monarchical world.
But the Statue of Liberty almost immediately morphed into a symbol of America’s encouragement of immigration, thanks in part to the extraordinary sonnet written by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887). Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” to help raise money for the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty would stand. Five of her 14 lines are particularly famous:
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Those famous lines have never really represented an American consensus. In a sense, they give a false hope to the “tempest tost,” the “tired” and the “poor” of the world, because at no time in its 250-year history has the United States attempted to open its doors to all of those who wished to come here. In fact, the history of the United States is the history of periodic attempts to slam shut the “golden door.” Most Americans historically have not been on board with the poem’s request that the rest of the world “give us” and “send us” new immigrants. “The New Colossus” is almost always false advertising, in every generation, not so much a bait and switch strategy as a bait and then reject policy. Any citizen of any other country that reads Lazarus’ words today and regards them as America’s actual immigration philosophy is in for a very rude awakening.
Some argue that we should either live up to the ideals of “The New Colossus” or remove the plaque from the pediment of the Statue of Liberty because to pitch our national promise so high and then refuse to live by that promise brands the American people as hypocrites.
In 2019, President Trump’s acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, offered a revision of the poem: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
Repeat and Rinse, Rinse and Repeat
The pattern was set early. First it was the Irish who came in waves. They were denounced as lazy, drunken, self-pitying, dirty and feckless. Businesses published want ads for workers ending with “No Irish Need Apply.” Then it was the Chinese, who built our transcontinental railroads, but whose numbers were eventually curtailed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Then came the Japanese who, among other services, helped James J. Hill build the Great Northern Railroad. Faced with growing anti-Japanese sentiment in America, particularly in California, President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907, in which Japan agreed to sharply restrict the numbers of its people it would send to the United States.
Roosevelt himself was deeply critical of anti-Japanese bigotry, but he negotiated the agreement to prevent a much more serious backlash on the West Coast. San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, a future U.S. cenator, said, “Chinese and Japanese … are not the stuff of which American citizens are made.”
Then it was Italians and eastern Europeans. And Jews.
The Polish. Mexicans. Immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua. And on the East Coast Puerto Ricans. And Cubans. More recently Hmong from Cambodia. Somalis. Muslims. Remember, former President Trump actually called for a national “Muslim ban” during his 2015-2016 campaign.
Then presidential candidate Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigration.
The pattern repeats itself with mathematical predictability. With each new wave, some percentage of the American old guard derides and dehumanizes the latest immigrants, regards them as an economic threat, or a security threat, sometimes a hygiene threat. They complain that the latest immigrant group “keeps to itself,” “refuses to learn English,” “represents a drain on the public treasury,” and endangers the identity and core values of America. There is often a racial dynamic in anti-immigrant politics. The alarmists warn us against the “browning of America,” the “replacement” of our white northern European stock with millions of swarthy aliens. At their most intense rallies, they carry placards that say “Jews (but fill in the blank) will never replace us.”
Expansion With Caution
When the United States defeated our closest southern neighbor in President Polk’s Mexican War in 1848 (a trumped up war of naked imperial aggression), the U.S. forced Mexico to give us California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. It was the third largest land cession in American history: Louisiana Purchase 1803, 828,000 square miles, 4 cents per acre; Alaska 1867, nearly 600,000 square miles, less than 2 cents per acre; the Mexican “cession” 1848, 525,000 square miles. What is less well known is that the United States was in a position to absorb much of the rest of today’s Mexico in 1848 but enough senators in the U.S. Congress feared what they called the mongrelization of America to stop short of a full acquisition. In other words, American racism was even more powerful in 1848 than American landlust.
Throughout our history, there have been those who would slam the doors shut — now that we are in! — and admit no further immigrants. President Trump actually said many times during the course of his administration that immigrants should turn back at the border because “we’re full.” Others in our history have been willing to permit a modest number of immigrants in, as long as they were white. Some are open to a significant but strictly calibrated number of immigrants. Some just want a moratorium so we can absorb those who are here. A solid majority of Americans have no beef with legal immigration, but want secure borders, strict enforcement, and they resent those who break the law to get in. If your first act on American soil is to break the law, they say, this does not bode well for your character or your likely behavior once in. A handful of libertarians argue for something like open borders — reckoning that the market will sort things out.
Almost all Americans oppose the idea of open borders — come one, come all. Almost all Americans oppose the idea of a zero-immigration policy, or even a moratorium. But most Americans of both parties, as well as independents, are either ashamed or appalled by the chaos on the southern border, and they want the national government of the United States to come to a consensus about a sane, enforceable and firm set of border policies — and then to enforce those policies with a humane understanding that almost all of us are descendants of good and decent people from elsewhere who were “yearning to breathe free.” They were frightened, too. America was then, as it is now, a magnet of hope and freedom and opportunity and new beginnings. We should dread the day when America ceases to be the world’s foremost land of possibility.
If we no longer believe in that dream, we should pluck down Emma Lazarus’ plaque.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.