As the American calendar moves on to 2015, the most vexing issue the country faces is immigration. No issue is more important to the concept of a nation-state than policies involving citizenship and the flow of people in and out of its borders. No other issue more neatly cuts across the partisan and regional divisions of the US today.
Like millions of Americans, the family of my paternal grandfather came to the US through Ellis Island over a hundred years ago when immigration law was very modest and not too critical to its health. We do have two very large oceans separating us from all but two countries, a very unusual circumstance compared to most other parts of the world. After World War I, the Congress and the President enacted encompassing rules establishing fixed caps for immigration and also how to handle the integration of people who were primarily not of English language, customs and Common Law traditions.
Most historians look at the period of time from the 1920s until the 1960s (when the Congress next passed major changes to immigration law) as reasonably successful as it relates to integrating large numbers of new arrivals into the country. Countless families were brought into America and worked their way into the fabric of the nation, living standards for lower-skilled, lower-wage people rose alongside those of native born Americans, including blacks. Of course, there are many examples of tension, but to expect otherwise is unrealistic.
This began to change with the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, leading to a next generation of immigration different from its predecessors, as most new arrivals were people from Latin America and the Pacific Rim. Twice, Congress passed additional laws in 1986 and 1996 to respond to the influx of the new arrivals. Unfortunately, the numbers have proven to be so great that after the amnesty provisions in 1986 and subsequent explosion of illegal immigration, we find ourselves on the verge of being unable to control our borders. A nation state cannot survive for too long in these conditions – look at the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire in the rear view mirror for an example of where we are headed.
Historians will likely view the George W. Bush and Obama years as one long stretch when it comes to immigration policy that reached a crescendo with President Obama’s executive order last month. This extreme action somehow extends social security numbers and work permits to some unknown number of millions of illegal immigrants that arrived on a fixed date. How we determine when an illegal immigrant definitively arrived on US soil is for another article, but the reality is that millions of people are here illegally for a variety of reasons, some long term but others shorter term when factoring in Executive Amnesty. Pictures of young children being placed on trains from Central America this year amply reinforce this undeniable truth.
Like many market-oriented conservatives, I once supported this type of large-scale immigration per business interests in DC. Now, I did not support massive importation of millions of illegals, but I did support lower skilled immigration along with higher skilled immigration (which I continue to support in limited amounts similar to Canada). The US has had guest-worker programs in Louisiana for generations in certain fields that have worked reasonably well. However, what I came to realize by 2006 is that allowing medium-sized numbers of lower skilled immigration coupled with the 1986 amnesty and birth right citizenship conferred by several Supreme Court decisions led to an insatiable magnet for more. Ever greater numbers of illegals, which paralleled the Reagan boom era from 1982-2007 was leading to a negative impact on working class wages for native-born Americans, not limited to but especially for black working-class communities in many urban core areas.
I have been around DC and policymaking long enough to remember strong voices in the Democrat coalition like the late Barbara Jordan and other civil rights leaders, most organized labor groups, and most environmental groups who steadfastly resisted the tide of illegal immigration. They expressed concerns about its impact on job security and wages for their constituents that resonate in 2014. Like the shift so evident most prominently in California, Democrat operatives realized that rather than fight this influx; maybe these illegals could be organized into powerful voting blocks for the party. Couple this with support from portions of corporate America who naturally support measures to decrease wages via competition, and you have a situation where the elites of both major political parties are in bed for more of the same.
What is so frustrating for me and large numbers of Americans is an absolute refusal of elites to honestly deal with this issue outside of narrow self-interests. Worse, this refusal to listen to millions of Americans of all races allows the issue, at times, to be addressed by elements sometimes outside the healthy mainstream of the country. There are real issues involving this nation’s culture and rule of law that are being frayed by millions of people entering and staying illegally. The pressure on public education, public health, in addition to the aforementioned lowering of wages for middle and working classes are real. Dismissing these concerns as nativist or, worse, racist, does a serious disservice to the long-term strength and vitality of America.
I fear that if the incoming 114th Congress and new President in 2017 do not tackle this issue head on, it will be will the genuine disuniting of America. Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of guest worker programs, high skill and STEM immigration or how to deal with the illegal population already here, but without first stemming the flow into the country, it will be our undoing. Attempting to resolve the most thorny issues of illegal immigration without first solving the control of our southern border is insane. What is so extreme about wanting to maintain the longest and most successful republic of the last two thousand years?