Guest Editorial

The immigration debate we're not having


As the nation finds itself embroiled in a debate over immigration, we hear the standard arguments for and against. Those favoring a more liberal approach to immigration warn of the economic consequences of turning away low-cost workers. On the other side, we're warned that immigration itself "costs" too much - illegal immigrants are "taking" jobs from American workers, abusing public services, and committing crimes.

What no one is debating, however, is the morality of immigration itself.

Few Americans anymore believe that government action should be guided by reference to moral principles. Instead, they react to each new "crisis" by simply demanding that government "do something," which usually means restricting someone else's freedom. Such is the case with immigration.

It's interesting that people in the United States would be having an immigration debate at all, considering the history of our country. Of the 27 grievances against the British king listed in the Declaration of Independence, number 7 is, "He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States [by] refusing to pass [laws] to encourage ... Migrations hither...."

By comparison, the complaint that the king was "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent" - the only major complaint of the colonists, if standard public-school textbooks are to be believed - comes in at number 17.

Twenty-first-century Americans clamor for more laws restricting immigration, forgetting that our 18th-century ancestors complained about such laws - even to the point of revolt!

Throughout the first century of the American republic, immigrants freely flocked to her shores. They brought with them a mixture of languages, cultures, religions, and ethnicities. Under the protective umbrella of a limited, constitutional government these new Americans built cities, settled empty lands, launched industries, and established philanthropic institutions.

In short, they thrived - because they had the right to do so.

During most of the 19th century, there were practically no controls on immigration. Those arriving through Ellis Island were typically given a cursory medical examination and then left free to pursue opportunity and happiness.

On America's southern border - the point of entry in greatest contention today - even this superficial amount of control was nonexistent. Between the end of the Mexican War in 1848 and the First World War almost 70 years later, there was virtually no distinction between the United States and Mexico. People traveled throughout the region, taking the freedom of movement for granted.

From this great melting pot arose the wealthiest, most prosperous nation ever witnessed in the history of the world, thanks to its heritage of freedom and its corollary institutions of private property, the rule of law, and individual liberty.

Of course, it wasn't always easy going. As each new wave of immigrants came, newcomers often faced hostility from groups that had already settled and undergone the pains of assimilation. Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants all in their turn faced hostility from those who saw them as "prone to crime," "dirty," "stupid," or "lazy."

There were even concerns that certain religious beliefs were hostile to American values, a view held by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who believed that Catholicism was un-American.

By the late 1800s some states, such as California, began using anti-drug laws to codify nativist thinking. Asians, whose cheap labor was thought to threaten the living standards of whites, were harassed under anti-opium laws, and anti-marijuana hysteria in the early 20th century would prompt widespread harassment of Latinos and Caribbean blacks.

While the anti-immigrant nature of such laws were deviations from America's open-border tradition, they were a far cry from the kind of massive deportations and draconian immigration restrictions (such as the imprisonment of employers who hire illegal immigrants) called for today by demagogic politicians, their friends in the media, and certain private groups whipping up hysteria against foreigners.

The right to free movement is a fundamental part of our history. Rather than debate the utilitarian consequences of immigration, we should instead remember that the dignity of each individual, regardless of country of origin, demands the right to seek a better life.

Scott McPherson is a policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation (


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