February 19, 2011
America's Immigration Problem
My four grandparents immigrated to the United States from Poland at different times, but all approximately a century ago. They and most of their siblings -- a few stayed behind and were eventually consumed in the Holocaust -- were part of a massive 40-year wave of immigration from Eastern Europe to our shores. Over the past century, my immigrant ancestors spawned four generations of American Jews who now reside all over our great country.
By absolutely any measure, the immigration tale of my family is an American success story. My cousins and second cousins and their progeny are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, scientists, artists, educators, students, soldiers, athletes, journalists and IT specialists. (However, I have no knowledge of any politicians.) Of course, no family history is perfect -- there are a few miscreants and at least one jailbird. But there can be no doubt that the United States of America made an excellent investment when it opened its doors to my ancestors. The deal was outstanding for us as well -- after nearly two millennia of persecution and pain, these Jews found a land where they could be free, prosperous, worship without fear, and rise to any heights that their abilities afforded them.
I have friends and colleagues of Italian, Irish, Greek, and Chinese ancestry whose family history traces a similar trajectory. Aside from a tiny percentage of the population that is descendants of indigenous people, everyone else in America is an immigrant or the descendant of one. And yet the vast majority of us see ourselves as thoroughly American -- whether our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, in steerage on a turn-of-the-century boat from a Baltic port, or via an unseaworthy vessel off the coast of Vietnam. How can that be?
The answer is simple. Unlike in France or Sweden or Cambodia, the citizens of our nation do not derive their national identity from a specific piece of land or a religion or an ethnic heritage, a race or even a language -- although it is possible to argue about the last one. To be an American is instead to subscribe to an idea, which comprises a philosophy of government, a means of organizing society and an economic system.
The United States of America did not come into existence slowly over eons through the gradual, natural congealing of a people via one or more of the above categories. It was created essentially ex nihilo at the end of the eighteenth century by means of two founding documents -- the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution -- as well as through the writings and speeches of the men, and their associates, who penned those documents.
To be an American is to accept, practice and promote the ideas in those documents. It is to acknowledge the uniqueness of this nation in world history as one in which: individual liberty is the highest ideal; those who govern do so only with the consent of the governed; and our rights to -- as Mr. Jefferson so eloquently put it -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are bestowed upon us by our Creator, not by any government. Those who come to our shores with these beliefs are welcome to join us in the magnificent journey upon which our Founders propelled us. It is our great fortune that most of those who have immigrated to this land came with those ideals or adopted them soon after their arrival.
That being said, our nation's formal immigration policies have varied over the last two centuries. Immediately after Independence, we were not particularly encouraging of immigration -- feeling as we did that most of the European population did not share our uniquely, freedom-worshipping ideals. But as the nineteenth century unfolded -- needing more people to conquer a vast continent and to participate in a great Industrial Revolution - we encouraged immigration more and more. Then, as those two great adventures came to a close in the early twentieth century, we returned to more restrictive policies. We threw open the gates again after WWII and they have remained open ever since.
Our specific immigration schemes have also varied. Which countries we favored; what criteria we sought (relatives, specific work skills, educational level, age) -- these too have not remained constant. Nevertheless, I don't think that any of those critically affected the end result. Most of the people arriving at our borders were "yearning to breathe free."
It would not be unreasonable to expect that a hundred years hence the descendants of today's immigrants will recite the same story as I did in the opening paragraph. And yet there is a great unease in the country about immigration today. Too much of it is illegal. But I suspect that that is not the main cause of the unease. It is because we fear that too many of today's immigrants do not share our ideals, as did our ancestor immigrants. We worry that too many new immigrants are not here because they believe in the principles of 1776 and 1787, but because they heard from a relative living here that there's some free booty lying around and they'd like to get some. Moreover, unlike in previous generations, we seem to be making no effort to inculcate the Founders' ideals into our new immigrants.
Indeed, the latter is the key point. It is not that the new immigrant is from Latin America or Asia or the Middle East instead of Europe; it is not that he speaks Spanish instead of German or French; it is not that his work ethic is weaker than those of previous immigrants -- it's not; and it is not that she is not steeped in American history -- my grandmothers couldn't distinguish John Adams from Samuel Adams. It is that we the people, or at least a sizeable segment of us, have lost faith in our own ideals. You cannot inculcate newcomers into your way of life if you no longer subscribe to its tenets. So we make no effort to ensure that new immigrants possess or are given the ideas that quickly grant them access to an American identity.
The success of the progressive movement in America over the last century has eroded the people's belief in the fundamental principles that formerly defined our national identity. The government has grown beyond acceptable boundaries and no longer seeks the consent of the governed; individual liberty as our highest ideal has given way to the pursuit of an artificial equality; property is no longer sacrosanct; and our nation is no longer viewed by many of its citizens, especially the "elite," as unique. Those immigrating to a nation founded on ideas, which no longer believes in those ideas, are rightly confused and unassimilated. They serve only to hasten the nation's downfall. It is therefore not surprising that some blame the nation's ills on immigrants -- illegal or otherwise.
Immigrants once understood that they had embarked on a tough road, but that there was a pot of gold at the end -- if not for them, then for their children. Today's immigrants are taught to demand the gold immediately without earning it. But immigrants, illegal and legal, are not the main source of America's ills. Like most of our ailments, the immigration problem will be cured if we return the country to the principles upon which it was founded.