We need immigrants to replenish and refresh and revitalize our population, but we need to better manage the flow of immigration and certainly more wisely manage which immigrants get priority…
Our Statue of Liberty proudly proclaims that we are a refuge for the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” of the world. Refuse, as in scum and garbage. I will not belabor the obvious point that these phrases are just poetic gloss for more derogatory terms like “s—holes,” but tone and intent matter and President Trump’s were objectionable. Those lyrical words come from a poem that was used to garner donations for the statue’s pedestal. The words are not, although one could be forgiven for assuming otherwise, part of the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. The words are hard for many of us to read and not swell with pride and become teary-eyed, but they are just words and they have no legal or even moral standing. Yet these words have power over us, they are deeply ingrained in our national mythology and ethos, and as a people we sense we would lose something special by abandoning them altogether.
It is useful to remind ourselves that those words were written in 1883. At that time America was a very different place. In 1883 we were a country of not quite 55 million people. We now number 325 million people, nearly six times the 1883 figure. When will we finally concede that we ourselves have “huddled masses” and need to restrain immigration? We continue to be open to immigration on a scale that should shock and shame the rest of the world. Legal immigration each year totals approximately one million, and altogether about 40 million legal immigrants reside in the United States today, the largest number ever in our history and a number which accounts for nearly twenty percent of all immigrants worldwide. Even if President Trump’s “draconian” immigration reforms were fully implemented, at least half a million new immigrants would continue to arrive each year.
There are, of course, other differences between 1883 and 2018. Modern aviation now makes what was once an arduous voyage across seemingly endless seas a brisk flight of a few hours. And our social fabric has evolved from a rugged individualism to a vast and intricate social safety net that provides billions of dollars in welfare, education, and healthcare to an ever-widening number of needful applicants, legal or otherwise. But welfare and other social supports are not growing in tandem with the need and those who arguably have a greater right—citizens—will inevitably suffer as the welfare pie is divided into smaller and smaller slices. The political party that is seen by many as the champion of the country’s poor and downtrodden seems impervious to this fact.
There are several disturbing personality similarities between President Trump and the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, especially in the realms of ego and overweening self-confidence, but the Wall is the main thing. The Great Wall was built at great expense and sacrifice, and yet few historians think it was, in practical terms, worth the cost. The same will be true of Trump’s Wall. As propaganda and as a symbol of power, both the Great Wall and Trump’s Wall are brilliant public relations. Perhaps more than anything else President Trump did during the election campaign, it was his call for the Wall that galvanized support and inspired his legions. But as a defense against illegal immigration, it isn’t worth it. The Wall will certainly have some impact on crossings, but as a defensive measure, it will be about as useful as the Maginot Line was for the French. Thousands will still find ways around, under, and through the Wall, and airports and seaports will continue to allow access for tens of thousands of others who have legal visas but illegally overstay. A national identity card system, severe penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and a strict prohibition on affording illegal immigrants any access to health care, schools, and welfare would be far more effective, but all are politically untenable. In the long term, other conservative reforms, such as curtailing chain migration and limiting the diversity lottery to highly-skilled and educated applicants are far more sensible.
The Past: Not All’s Well that Ends Well
All four of my grandparents arrived at the turn of the last century from Sicily. Along with them came millions of others who struggled to make a new and better future for themselves and their children. Now, more than a century later, we all look back and smile with pride, and we remind ourselves that there were plenty of real Americans at that time who opposed that huge onslaught of immigrants. It is another myth we love to recite over and over with a million different, endearing stories. I am especially fond of old newspaper clippings quoting dignified persons of that earlier time complaining that Sicilians were even worse than African-Americans because they have such an affinity for lying and stealing effortlessly, and thus they were ruining American society.
Those same dignified persons a century ago warned that America was in danger: crime was increasing, poverty and disease spreading, and wages decreasing, undermining the ability of laborers to make a living wage. But because it is now all part of our collective lore, we never stop to think that those who opposed that earlier surge of immigration had valid concerns. Crime did dramatically increase, and with it suffering for the working class and the poor. It may well have been better for the United States not to have had that huge surge in immigration at the turn of the last century. A more limited, more orderly increase back then may have allowed the country to grow with less crime, less poverty, less social alienation, and less pain.
The Present Quagmire
When it comes to the current controversy over immigration, the instincts of the American people are laudably sensible and decent. On the one hand, the vast majority of Americans are concerned for the welfare of the so-called “dreamers” who, as the liberal mantra goes, “are here through no fault of their own.” Most Americans have decided the sins of the parents—who illegally brought their children to the United States—should not be visited upon the children themselves, even if the parents may eventually benefit from having illegally entered the United States: Once the “dreamers” become citizens there is nothing in current law that would bar them from filing for their parents to immigrate to the United States.
On the other hand, a solid majority of Americans also sense that our current immigration system is broken and is in need of an urgent overhaul. Just how broken the system is most Americans don’t really realize, although they vaguely understand that massive numbers of immigrants with no skills, no higher education, and often even no English language ability, can immigrate and then avail themselves of various welfare, health, and social programs. But they are far less aware of the amount of fraud, deceit, and corruption that takes place daily that American embassy consular sections must battle. Having served in one such section in Manila many years ago and having witnessed the operations of dozens of others around the world, it is appallingly obvious that the current “family unification” or “chain migration” system entices and compels thousands of applicants to proffer false documents and perjured statements in hopes of immigrating. Managing the chain migration process is a bureaucratic and legal nightmare, and anything that is done to streamline or curtail it should be applauded.
The Blame Game and the Name Game
In manipulating public sentiment, the side that can better blame the other usually wins. So far, at least, neither side has struck a knockout blow and the PR “blame game” continues with liberals accusing the Right of holding the dreamers “hostage” to a larger solution on immigration reform and the conservatives accusing the Left of cynically “sacrificing” the dreamers to avoid solving the larger immigration reform problem.
But while it is a standoff on the blame game, the liberal side has already won the name game and its preferred moniker prevails: The term “dreamers” is now used universally—and who can really oppose “dreamers” without sounding churlish and cold-hearted? It would be as if both sides in the ongoing abortion debate decided to use only the term “pro-choice” or, alternatively, only “pro-life.” If so, the abortion debate would already be over. On the DACA issue, there is now no viable alternative to the term “dreamers” that can be conjured up by the Right, so they may as well surrender on this point. A few years ago it may have been possible to launch a semantic campaign, countering “dreamers” with “schemers,” or, at least, “the children of schemers” but that is no longer possible. That the “schemers” violated the law is no longer part of the mainstream conversation. And the fact that these “schemers” illegally entered the United States, while tens of thousands of others who “dream” of immigrating to the United States have patiently waited their chance to legally immigrate, is not ever heard. Of course, these legal “dreamers” have only themselves to blame for following the rules. Even worse, they should know not to be so stoic: Suffering silently is not a good way to advance a cause—something the “dreamers” and their advocates know all too well.
Why Can’t Either Side Be Honest?
Both sides have made some distasteful assertions regarding immigration. The disregard of some conservatives for all the vast and varied contributions made by immigrants has been stunningly tone deaf. Some rightwing rhetoric has been so egregious and reprehensible that many otherwise sensible Americans now lean far leftward on this issue. Equally tone deaf has been the Democratic assertion, repeated over and over, that immigrants are essential to do jobs Americans won’t. Apart from how insulting that assertion is to millions of Americans who generally take pride in their work whatever it is, how don’t the Democrats see how disturbingly reminiscent such an assertion is to the old Democratic rationale for maintaining slavery? This implicit liberal desire to cultivate an underclass to maintain our current comfortable standard of living is unnerving.
Strident conservative critics of immigration are, of course, wrong. We need immigrants. We need look no further than Europe to see the demographic strains that are caused when birth rates plummet and populations age and there are too few young people to keep the social support net from fraying. While our birth rate is higher than most of Europe’s, it is still inadequate to counter the rapid aging of our population. Besides, few Americans really want to dispense with one of our great founding principles: that we are and always ought to be a nation of immigrants. We are not like most countries whose country name closely matches the nomenclature of their citizens. When we think of China and Chinese or Germany and Germans a distinct image is conjured up in our minds. But when one thinks of America and Americans, no clear and distinct image of an individual comes to mind: We are too mixed and blended, and that is our strength and our destiny. Defying destiny makes no sense and ultimately just harms those who do not embrace the inevitable.
Rabid liberals are no better in a different way. They know how the legal immigration system is supposed to work. They know that there are tens of thousands all across the world who have waited patiently to immigrate while the “schemers” and “cheaters” jump the queue and repeatedly get rewarded for it. But it is not something they care to raise because it ruins their narrative. And, of course, both sides border on the absurd in trying to characterize the “dreamers” and other illegal immigrants. To listen to some conservatives you would think all illegal immigrants, including the dreamers, are rapists and thieves, whereas if you listen to some liberals they are all high school valedictorians and Olympic superstars. But in truth, they’re just people, ranging from the truly amazing to the truly despicable. The solution is simple and most Americans understand this: We need immigrants to replenish and refresh and revitalize our population, but we need to better manage the flow of immigration and certainly more wisely manage which immigrants get priority.
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