Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Rational Immigration Reform, Part I

For reasons of length, I will be posting the following piece as a series. This first part provides some background. The second part will appear tomorrow evening.

If you've been reading the news, or merely not living under a rock, then you know that there has been considerable debate about the millions of people in this country illegally. It seems the only thing that everyone agrees on is that Something Must Be Done. For some reason, this issue is more urgent than Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, the Sudan, warrantless wiretapping, failing schools, rebuilding New Orleans in such a way that it won't get destroyed during the next hurricane season, or an impending avian flu pandemic. The only thing that might be as important to the American people is who in Major League Baseball is injecting steroids into their butts.

National priorities aside, there is a real problem, and it has existed for many years. We can trace much of the current problem to the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely limited the number of aliens who could legally immigrate to the United States. For many countries, their nationals were completely excluded, since the Act limited immigration to a fraction of that country's nationals who had already immigrated. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 eased this restriction somewhat, providing for a minimum quota of 100 immigrants from any country. This did not, however, substantially change the fact that 1924 marked the year in which America effectively declared itself no longer a nation that welcomes immigrants seeking a better life.

America remained prosperous, however, making it an attractive place for would-be immigrants, who might not have heard about the change in its attitude. Indeed, we have retained the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol, with its words of welcome:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
[from "The New Colossus", Emma Lazarus, 1883]
In truth, it was this spirit of welcoming that made America prosperous, and has infused us continuously with creativity, ingenuity, and industry.

The fact that immigration issues have come to a head recently, when Latin American populations are becoming more predominant in many areas and a majority in some, raises suspicions of racism in immigration policy. If this is true, it is certainly nothing new in the politics of American immigration law. Consider, for example, this speech given to the House of Representatives by Rep. Thomas Fitch of Nevada on May 27, 1870, as recorded in the Appendix to the Congressional Globe (the predecessor of the Congressional Record):

With so much of the speech of the gentleman from California [Mr. Johnson] as expresses unfriendliness to the encouragement of Chinese immigration I earnestly concur. I do not believe in the cheap labor which supplants contented and well-paid toil, nor in that social theory which would force the Caucasian to rival the domestic economy of the Asiatic. I do not believe in the policy of introducing extensively into this country a race who have a distinct civilization, religion, habits, and language of their own; a race who are alike incapable and unworthy of assimilation with ours; a race with whom polygamy is a practice and female chastity is not a virtue; a race who are thrifty in habit yet slothful in thought, apt yet retrogressive, educated yet without newspapers, courageous yet without self-respect, honest in monetary affairs yet without moral principle, faithful to obligations yet utterly destitute of any regard for the truth; a race which rears no families and acquires no landed property among us, possesses no past and hopes for no future in common with our civilization, and whose members are of their own will perpetual strangers in this land, where they never design to remain, and from which they contract to have even their dead bodies exported.

A longer tirade appears in the January 25th Congressional Globe of the same year, given by the Hon. James A. Johnson of California.

We can, perhaps, see echoes of this in recent speeches, such as this one given by Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri on April 27, 2005, regarding the Emergency Immigration Workload Reduction and Homeland Security Enhancement Act of 2005:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today still afraid for our nation's security. Not because of terror alerts, but because our borders remain porous. The enforcement of our immigration policy is impotent, resulting in a continued flood of illegal immigrants across our borders.

It is time for the federal government to stop letting unchecked mass immigration undermine the wages, safety, and benefits in one occupation after another. It is time for the federal government to moderate immigration and to treat American workers, citizen and immigrant, with the respect they deserve.

Our constituents did not elect us to help cheapen the quality of their lives by importing foreign workers at six to eight times the historical average. There is no getting around the fact that when we cheapen labor with unchecked illegal immigration, we cheapen our neighbors, both citizens and immigrants alike.

I do not mean to imply that the Hon. Mr. Graves holds the sort of repugnant racial views of Mr. Fitch, nor that he opposes immigration. A critical point to observe is that Mr. Graves is discussing illegal aliens, not legal immigration against which Mr. Fitch spoke. The protectionist arguments regarding American workers are, however, similar.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss illegal aliens in this country, and how we might grant them legal status in an equitable manner.

No comments: