We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
The Declaration of Independence, 1776
The man, Thomas Jefferson, who first penned these words in June of 1776, was a slave owner, presumably denying to his slaves, at the very least, their unalienable right to liberty. It would take another two hundred or so years until all the citizens of the land for whom he was writing, the land which ultimately became the United States of America, could fully and equally exercise these rights granted them, not by any state, but by the very dint of their creation.
Jefferson’s preamble did not mince words. It did not offer mealy-mouthed nods to the political exigencies of the time. It simply stated principles of which our hunter/gatherer ancestors were surely, self-evidently, aware, but that were lost somehow in the great economic transformation arising with the advent of sedentary agriculture and civilization. Finally, after having been there 10,000 years, we discovered again, bright shining as the sun, the grace God had bestowed upon humanity from the very beginning.
Yet now we wander back into darkness. Now we try to use the cudgel of government to distinguish between citizen and non-citizen in deciding to whom unalienable rights bestowed by the Creator should apply. The distinction is as illegitimate today as was the distinction between slave and free during Jefferson’s day. All men are created equal, wherever born, and all have been endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Puny human borders have no bearing on the endowment. Imaginary lines drawn on a map don’t demarcate different classes of human beings.
For the first hundred years of its existence, the United States effectively had no immigration policy. It allowed, and even encouraged, all newcomers, the lack of policy undoubtedly owing to the unique character of its formation.
The original boat people, call them the Plymouth refugees, as they departed from Plymouth England and arrived at New Plimoth in what was later to become Plymouth Colony, did not face the possibility of deportation or detainment upon arrival (except in the natural course of arriving and occupying already-settled lands). They weren’t restricted according to their health or morals (except that poor health or a weak moral fiber might pose severe survival constraints). They simply arrived, relentlessly. From the establishment of the Plymouth Colony in the 1620’s, which quickly grew to about 25,000 by 1640, to the start of the American Revolution in 1776, the population of the colonies grew to roughly two and half million, a hundred fold increase in a sesquicentennial. Even after the establishment of the United States with the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, immigration remained largely unrestricted, at least until 1875, when Congress passed an act barring immigration to prostitutes and convicts. From there, it didn’t take long for gathering nativist sentiments, which had briefly flared just before the Civil War, only to be dampened by the War’s need for labor, to reignite. Congress passed its first racist, nativist, xenophobic immigration law in 1882, aimed, ironically, at excluding citizens of the same country so many of today’s class of racist, nativist, xenophobic Americans direct their ire. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first of many to come which attempted to impair the exercise of human rights so eloquently declared at America’s founding were the unalienable endowment of their Creator. By exorbitantly increasing the cost of immigration (because of its illegality), the Act may have succeeded in dissuading some Chinese from immigrating, but still, by the end of the 1880’s, over 5.2 million new immigrants (of all origins) had arrived in the US. Governments can try to alienate unalienable rights. They ultimately never succeed. Man can’t confiscate what the Creator has endowed.
From this inauspicious start at attempting to modulate and control the exercise of basic human rights, Congress went on to pass a series of immigration measures, which were in the main initially directed at excluding whomever was considered politically undesirable. From the Chinese, public opinion shifted its ire to southern and eastern Europeans (thus the 1917 Act barred people who couldn’t read, heavily impacting, as intended, this population subset), and to Asians generally (the same Act specifically barred Asians from a certain hemispheric zone). Then Congress devised a quota system, limiting the total amount of immigrants to a certain percentage of the extant immigrant population in the country. The 1921 Act limited immigrants to 3% of their home country’s population living in the US according to the 1910 census. That wasn’t enough, so in 1924, Congress reduced the quota to 2% of the home country’s population living in the US according to the 1890 census. But the harshest measures of the 1924 Act did not take effect until 1929. A new quota system was then implemented which calculated allowable immigration according to a “national origins” formula which took account of the entire population, immigrant and resident. By the time of its implementation, it was, however, a practical nullity. Economic collapse meant that pursuing life, liberty and happiness in the US didn’t hold the same appeal as before—only half a million people immigrated during the 1930’s, a number far exceeded by the amount who left. Or, perhaps, the imminent decline in population growth with the Act’s draconian measures precipitated economic collapse. There is no way to know. All that can said for sure is that US immigration policy became highly restrictive at about the same time the US economy collapsed.
After World War Two, an attempt was made to rationalize immigration policy under one omnibus act. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which provides the foundation for the piecemeal, uncoordinated immigration policies and procedures of today, was itself an attempt at consolidating the piecemeal, uncoordinated immigration policies and procedures that had arisen prior to the time of its passage. The 1952 Act kept the quota system, over President Truman’s veto, and implemented a priority system for admitting people based on how economically valuable the government considered them (along w/ some family unification priorities). The 1952 Act was the subject of constant tweaking in vain attempts to regulate the flow of human desires. President Johnson finally eliminated the national origins quota system in 1965 and instituted a new seven-tier system of preferences for admission, four of which were devoted to family unity. Then in 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which attempted to balance the interests of those seeking to deter illegal immigration with those who needed immigrant laborers to fill jobs, particularly in agriculture. Even with all the Congressional attempts at controlling the exercise of basic human rights, it was estimated that by 1980, almost six million people were illegally (pursuant to government immigration policies) pursuing life, liberty and happiness in the United States; nothing of the new legislation did much to change the incessant flow, legal and illegal, of dreamers and strivers looking for a better life. The undeclared war on immigration was proceeding about as successfully as those other officially declared social wars against drugs and poverty.
The 1990’s dawned with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of totalitarian governments that, even more oppressively than in the West, had been hell-bent on alienating unalienable rights. In a fit of good will attendant to victory in the Cold War, Congress tweaked immigration law and policy with the Immigration Act of 1990, this time vastly expanding the allowable number of legal immigrants each year, to roughly 800,000, from what had been about 300,000. The United States, booming economically with the post-war peace dividend, again welcomed the world’s poor and oppressed, throwing open its arms to the world’s huddled masses. Congress further tweaked the system in 1996, with three statutes affecting immigration, most notably President Clinton’s Welfare Act of 1996, which barred non-citizens from receiving many federal services and benefits, most of which were slowly restored through further modifications by the time the twin towers in New York City fell, after which, everything changed, again.
The Homeland Security Act, passed in 2002, eliminated the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and transferred its functions to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. (Incidentally, is it only an ironic coincidence of nomenclature that the former Soviet Union’s excuse for oppressing the peoples in its border states was to provide a buffer for the “homeland”?) Immigration law and policy became a matter of national security. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Draconian measures designed to track and eliminate potential terrorist threats made every immigrant from certain locales suspect, at least unofficially. Officially, there would be no racial profiling. Unofficially, 8,000 people from Arab and Muslim countries were detained indefinitely for questioning to determine whether they had any terrorist contacts or held terrorist sympathies. Most of the 8,000 were deported (in the vernacular today, “removed”) for immigration law violations. None were found to have terrorist ties or sympathies. The hearings and evidence resulting in their removal was kept secret. Not even the US Supreme Court could be bothered by the plight of the Arab immigrant community, post 9-11.
The 9-11 attacks fomented growing nativist sentiments, particularly against so-called “illegal aliens”, a sentiment to which the government unsurprisingly pandered, raiding workplaces in dramatic fashion, criminalizing otherwise honest, diligent employment, and removing people for the slightest criminal infraction. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security laughably began construction of a fence along Mexican border, not unlike the one built to separate East and West Berlin, if instead for the purpose of keeping people out. The effect was the same. The basic, inalienable right of liberty (and in some cases, life, as hiring a coyote for making the crossing was fraught with peril) was impaired, and all because a few whacko Islamic fundamentalists hijacked some airliners. None of the 9-11 terrorists slipped into the country from Mexico.
With the recent economic slowdown, the Pew Research Institute estimates that what had been a flood of immigration, authorized and not, passing through the southern border has slowed to a trickle, and might have in fact turned negative. And those illegal aliens over which a certain segment of nativist, racist, xenophobic citizens are so concerned has actually declined in the last few years, from a high of about 12 million in 2007, to roughly 11 million in 2009 (the latest dates for which there are figures). It was in 2007 that the Great Recession started, thus, like the 1930’s, the US experienced another devastating economic contraction correlated with a decline in immigration. Did the one thing cause the other? There is really no way to tell; correlation is only the first hurdle to clear in determining causation, and in the social sciences (the hard sciences if ever there were any), no experiment holding other variables constant can ever be run. But in both episodes, tightened immigration policies preceded economic slowdown, so if there is a causative relationship, it almost certainly runs in the direction of the quelled exercise of unalienable rights inducing overall economic malaise.
Who should favor a wholesale dismantling of restrictive immigration laws and policies? For starters, any economist worthy of the designation. Economists as far back as Adam Smith recognized the economic benefits accruing from free and unfettered trade, trade which allowed the exploitation of comparative advantages in production. Smith’s virtuous capitalist who exploits his particular situation and abilities to, for example, bake bread as efficiently and effectively as possible, unremittingly depends upon the existence of a free market into which he might sell his bread. The capitalist baker’s selfish impulse to benefit himself by baking and selling bread could not be magically transformed to a virtue benefiting all of society without which a free and functioning market for his bread existed.
Smith’s capitalist baker could have any number of competitive advantages making him the most efficient (and thereby most virtuous) provider of bread. He might be advantageously located where grain stores, water and fuel are amply supplied. He might have been bred into baking, developing a special expertise in the craft from having been around it all his life. But all his comparative advantages are useless without the ability to sell that which he has a competitive advantage in producing.
What has not often been recognized in economics, with its fetish for separating labor and capital inputs as if special rules govern the exploitation of each (particularly among classical economists, e.g., Marx and Keynes), is that comparative advantage applies to the provisioning of one’s labor as much as it does to the exploitation of capital. The only capital possessed of a common laborer is the sweat of his brow, the strength of his back. But if a common laborer possesses a comparative advantage in offering his labor to the market, i.e., if his opportunity cost of providing his labor to the market is comparatively lower than that of others (perhaps his only alternative is scraping out a living at subsistence farming), then he, and the economic and social system as a whole, will benefit when he enters the market to provide his labor. The common laborer becomes as virtuous as Smith’s capitalist through a market allowing the exploitation of his comparative advantage in providing labor. Any obstacle (e.g., a god-awful fence, or an inane bureaucratic process) preventing him offering his labor to the market is a costly impediment to free trade. The laborer who can’t profitably deploy the only capital (his labor) at his disposal is like a baker who can’t sell bread. Society suffers economically when it tries to impair the liberty of leveraging comparative advantage, either among capitalists or laborers. Attempting to impede the exercise of unalienable rights comes at a steep economic cost, and not only to the objects of the impediment.
Politicians of either stripe should also favor a comprehensive rethinking of immigration law and policy. The reason is obvious for Republicans, who at least claim to disdain the interference and intrusions of government into the marketplace. The whole premise of small-government conservatism is that, left to its own devices, markets will channel the human impulse to survive and thrive into activities beneficial for society as a whole. It should be easy to see how governmental attempts at restricting immigration impair the proper functioning of markets, imposing a huge economic cost to society. Certainly, the Republican constituency comprising the capitalist class understands this, and it is no excuse for the party platform that some measure of Republican constituents might refuse to acknowledge or understand their own enlightened self-interest. (It is the duty of representatives in a republic to educate and inform as much as it is to represent.) In addition, recent immigrants, unauthorized and otherwise, are far more likely even than natives to live in the type of traditional nuclear families (according to Pew Research Institute) so championed by the family values advocates forming a critical portion of the Republican base.
Democrats have a practical political interest in flinging wide the gates to allow more immigration. The Democratic party of the modern era claims as its constituency people who have little capital to exploit in the marketplace except their own labor (or, as in the case of academia, where the intellect forms the basis of human capital, but the principle remains). The vast majority of immigrants enter on the lowest economic rungs, having only their physical labor to sell. These folks fit naturally into the Democratic coalition, sharing the same concerns as others who are possessed of little physical capital. The Democratic Party expands its base with liberal immigration.
In fact, practically everyone should be in favor of reforming immigration law and policy, except perhaps the immigration law enforcement bureaucracy, some rural nativists clinging hard to their guns and religion, and some private sector unions, particularly the United Auto Workers (what a strange group of political bedfellows that listing makes). Everyone else, including capitalists—particularly those in the housing and food industries, but also those in the medical services industry, the education industry, the arts and entertainment industry, the non-union automobile manufacturing industry—practically all industries except those that serve as gatekeepers to the free exercise of unalienable rights and those whose intelligence level prohibits them understanding their own enlightened self-interest, should be in favor of dismantling the immigration law and policy infrastructure, and of welcoming as many immigrants as will come.
And why? Immigration is the only hope for growth in almost every domestic industry. The present US population, including recent immigrants, is experiencing a baby bust in the midst of an ongoing demographic implosion. According to Pew Research Institute’s analysis of census figures, the total birth rate is its lowest ever. And it has declined the most precipitously among recent immigrants. Baby boomers are rapidly getting old and dying. Without more people—without more immigration, the prospects for growth, particularly in industries serving the domestic market, are quite dismal. It is people who create demand; more people, striving to survive and thrive, equals more demand. Without more people, the US risks becoming as stagnant and sclerotic as its antecedents in Europe are rapidly becoming. Without more people, the US will soon enough be forced, just as is now happening in Europe, to dramatically scale back its ambitious social welfare programs. Without more people, demand declines and the social safety net is ripped to shreds. What about liberalizing immigration is there for Republican or Democratic politicians to oppose?
Alas, neither party seems capable of allowing any change that might prove beneficial to the other, so immigration reform is ignored, resolving to a low priority. In the zero sum world inhabited by today’s Republican and Democrat parties, any benefit that might accrue to one party is a detriment to the other, even when both parties stand to gain. The parties cut off their noses to spite the faces; the needs of the country be damned. President Obama recognized this utter inability of a polarized Congress to do anything, and recently decided the Executive branch would simply not enforce a portion of the immigration law, as it applied to children who were smuggled into the US with the unauthorized entry of their parents. (While refusing to deport the children of unauthorized immigrants was certainly the economically sane and socially humane thing to do, the manner with which Obama did it, usurping the power of Congress to set immigration policy–left a good deal to be desired, a matter for another day.)
Forget the budget sequester. Forget the trillion-dollar annual deficits. Forget the mountain of accumulating debt. These are only irresolute problems if population growth stagnates and stalls. Fling open the gates of immigration, welcoming all who would come seeking to finally and fully realize the promise of Jefferson’s words, and the population and economic dilemma is resolved. Immigration reform which tears down the walls impairing human freedom would operate like Smith’s capitalist, a rare instance where the country would do well simply by doing good.
Some may object that potential immigrants don’t share American culture and values, and so would weaken and distort the native culture and values. Nonsense. First, there is no uniquely American culture cast in stone. While the English culture and language was the culture of America’s founding, early waves of immigration included Germans, Dutch, Irish, Italian, Spanish, African, Chinese and etc.,
the culture of all having stewed and brewed in the same pot for so long until only an occasional bit of distinctly identifiable culture of any remains. And now, the melted pot of European culture vies with distinct cultures of African and Hispanic heritage. But America is not a cultural system so much as it is a value system, and its core values are universal human values, transcending all nations in all times. America’s values belong to the world, and in as much as the American people demand their fulfillment, so too does America. Americans must understand and internalize that the legacy of values bequeathed them does not end with them, but is a timeless legacy, an eternal gift from God, entrusted to the care of each succeeding generation. That all men are created equal and endowed by their Creature with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is not a principle applying to only the first of America’s immigrants. It applies to all people everywhere and in all times.
There will come a time in the not distant future (beyond my lifetime, but probably not by much) when national governments the world over will compete, such as American states, and to some extent, European nations now do, to attract and retain citizens, immigrants and industries. If current trends continue, by about 2050, total world population (with growth already hitting stall speed or even turning negative in much of the developed world), will plateau and begin declining. When it does, nations wishing to continue viably existing will be forced to do as well by their citizens as the best among them. The United States has long offered a haven of opportunity and freedom for the world’s poor and oppressed. But it has lurched in the wrong direction over the course of the last half-century, restricting economic opportunities and freedom by the gradual accretion of ever more restrictive and legalistic immigration laws and policy. The time is now to get a leg up on future competition, and return the United States of America to the haven of freedom and opportunity it once was. The time is now for the promise of its founding to be fully realized through radical liberalization of its immigration law and policy.
What, specifically, would radical liberalization of immigration law and policy look like? First, allow for a much larger annual immigration. At least one percent per year of the total US population could be easily assimilated, which would be a bit over three million souls per year at present. Second, completely abolish the quota system, in so far as it still exists. Take all comers from all corners of the globe, with no consideration of national origins. Third, allow all newcomers a clear path to citizenship, which would include gaining basic proficiency in the English language, and a specified period of residency, perhaps five years. The currency of the realm is dollars, and the currency of communication is English. Not many immigrants arrive expecting to use their foreign currencies to transact business. They shouldn’t arrive expecting the locals to learn their language. Fourth, allow all extant unauthorized immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows and legitimate their stay. As soon as they step forward for identification, put them on a path of citizenship commensurate with that provided for new arrivals. Fifth, abolish affirmative action. Imagine how utterly confused and ridiculous would have become the United States of America had affirmative action, promoting and protecting diversity in culture and ethnicity, been in place at its founding. The Old World would have come to the New World with no chance for a new start. Instead of a homogenized culture based on attributes common to all mankind, American society would have become, at best, a confused tower of Babel. Government programs that dispense favors based on ethnicity or nationality are simply incompatible with a liberalized immigration regime. Sixth, require newcomers to achieve citizenship before becoming eligible for government cash entitlements, but afford new arrivals the complete procedural and legal processes provided citizens whenever their life, property or liberty is at stake. Seventh, cease granting citizenship to anyone born on US soil, but continue to provide citizenship to any child born of citizens, and develop a program allowing children to become naturalized citizens around the time of their twelfth or thirteenth birthday, much in the same manner that some churches (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc.)provide a path for membership at about the same age.
It is a bit ironic, roughly 237 years after Jefferson’s proclamation of unalienable rights were made the cornerstone of the country’s founding, that continuation of American prosperity nigh well depends on the rights to life, liberty and happiness being fully realized for “all men”, wherever situated. United States immigration law and policy has haphazardly veered, over these last hundred twenty-five years or so, which ‘ere way the political winds blew. But the beacon of truth about human nature and Nature’s God so eloquently explicated by Jefferson gleams as brightly as ever, exposing how America’s treatment of potential and actual newcomers has so often fallen short. It is time now to fulfill the promise of Jefferson’s words, if for no other reason than America’s continued economic and social vitality depends upon it.