The Past, Present, and Future of American Immigration

Richard Samuelson has provided us with a thoughtful discussion of immigration in modern America, focusing on its philosophical meanings and its place in American society. He defends the idea of America as a “credal” nation built upon the political principles of the Founding era and sees the assimilation of immigrants to that Founding creed as crucial. Throughout the essay, Samuelson voices concern about the changes he feels might alter the traditional processes of assimilation. We see discussions of dual citizenship, trans-nationalism, and the dangers of multiculturalism and interest-group politics.

There is much to comment on here, but I’ll try to approach this issue from a slightly different vantage point.

Let me begin by observing that history has generally not been kind to those who have taken a negative view of immigration to America. Samuelson cites the worries expressed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Although both men are respected Founding Fathers, I doubt anyone thinks their qualms were borne out. Franklin’s comment, for instance, is today seen as an embarrassing footnote to the distinguished career of one of early America’s best minds.

Another example can be found in Francis A. Walker, a leading economist of the late 1800s, former Civil War general, and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Writing in the 1890s, Walker called new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failure in the struggle for existence. . . . These people have no history behind them which is of a nature to give encouragement.” Walker was not alone in this belief, yet history has hardly vindicated this pessimistic view of immigrants and what they would bring to American society.

I am not trying to lump in Samuelson with Walker or imply untoward motives. Samuelson rightly stays clear of the kind of rhetoric often found among immigration restrictionists. His essay is more about the failings of modern American political and social institutions than of immigrants themselves. Still, there is a faint whiff of “declinism” in his essay. Decline is in the air these days in America, especially in the wake of the Great Recession and our seeming retreat from international affairs. Immigration has almost always played a role in narratives of decline—shades of the fall of the Roman Empire. Just read Pat Buchanan and you will see the link made explicit. Granted that Samuelson is no Buchananite pessimist, but throughout the essay there is a sense that perhaps our nation is just not up to the task of handling millions of new Americans.

Samuelson’s sections on political philosophy are engaging, but some of his anecdotes are less so. He complains about Dana Milbank of the Washington Post saying that immigration will provide the “fresh blood needed to cure what ails us” as a nation. I think Samuelson makes too much of this quote. Talk about “blood” in modern society rightly makes people pause, with its faint allusions to eugenics and Nazis. Yet the idea that immigrants will provide “fresh blood” to America is not new.

A hundred years ago, Boston mayor James Michael Curley, a proud spokesmen for Irish Americans and critic of the stodgy Puritan descendants known as the Brahmins, said: “The Puritan is passed; the Anglo-Saxon is a joke; a newer and better America is here.” Even Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous “Strenuous Life” speech, made a similar point. Birth rates among native-born Americans were declining, as they are today. Whereas Roosevelt was worried about the trend, Curley saw it as the dawning of a new and better America populated by the descendants of new immigrants.

Curley went on to say that the new America belonged to the “men and mothers of men,” not the “gabbing spinsters and dog-raising matrons” who were conspicuous among the old-stock Americans. While Curley was a corrupt demagogue (who didn’t mince words), we don’t have to approve of his ethics or governance to see, from a century’s distance, that his grasp of the direction of the country was better than Francis A. Walker’s. It is without a doubt that the United States is a better country today having accepted those 20 or so million immigrants during the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yes, immigrants from that period assimilated, but they also dramatically transformed American culture. America today is fundamentally different than it was 100 years ago and not just in terms of technology. Back then, American culture was still very much dominated by Anglo Saxon Protestants. Today, American food, literature, music, art, language, and film have all been transformed and reshaped by Americans who are descended from immigrant stock. Our twin blessings are our relatively stable constitutional political system, combined with an adaptable, ever-changing culture. More than likely, American culture in the year 2114 will be as different from our culture today as ours is from that of 1914.

So, yes, current immigration patterns are transforming American society in ways that can be unsettling to native-born Americans, just as they were in the past. Studying history can help us understand that reality and perhaps steer us away from “fall of the Roman Empire”-type gloom. At the same time, we should also guard against becoming Pollyanna-ish. We can’t simply say that everything is going to turn out fine in the future since we successfully assimilated immigrants in the past. There are some real differences between immigration then and now, some of which Samuelson touches upon.

Since the mid-1800s, America’s foreign-born population has never been higher than 15 percent. The last time we hit that figure was in 1910, when big cities like Chicago and New York saw 80 to 90 percent of their population made up of immigrants and their children. Today, about 14 percent of the country is foreign-born. We are currently averaging about one million legal immigrants per year. If Congress were to pass an immigration law extending amnesty to illegal immigrants, that annual rate would surely rise, since newly legalized immigrants would then be able to bring their family members into the country.

If the percentage of foreign-born goes above 15 percent, this will be unprecedented in the modern era. Not only would this raise the anxiety level of native-born Americans, it would also be problematic considering that immigration is increasingly viewed through the lens of civil rights. The civil rights revolution that destroyed Jim Crow racial segregation was later extended beyond race to sex, sexual orientation, and disability. Immigrant rights is the next logical category on that list.

The trouble with that development is twofold. First, it makes decisions to exclude individuals from admission arguably “discriminatory,” and sets up a “right” to immigrate. Borders become an arbitrary construction that deny opportunities to non-Americans. Some commenters have adopted that attitude. A recent op-ed in the Washington Post discusses a “citizenship-based discrimination” that is allegedly based on “borderism.” Even though “inheriting the wrong genes is no longer punishable by law, . . . inheriting the wrong citizenship is. Borderism is thus a sibling of racism as it subjects our rights to the lottery of life. While many opportunities in life are unequally distributed, our legal rights must always be universal.”

Expect to hear more such arguments in future, as human-rights and immigration activists chip away at American immigration law with the language and legal strategies of the civil rights movement.

The second problem with adapting the civil rights model to immigration is that it sets up an adversarial system for immigrants and their descendants, whereby they become “victims” of their adopted country rather than its newest citizens. Many immigrants no longer come “expecting no favors from the government,” as Samuelson paraphrases John Quincy Adams, and many are eligible for affirmative action benefits. Assimilation is seen as a threat to newcomers, a forceful imposition of one culture over another akin to imperialism. This is what Samuelson is referring to when he discusses the lobbying of groups like La Raza, which was founded on the modern civil rights model. Organizations formed to look after the interests of immigrant communities are not new, but the model by which they make their arguments and the demands they make on government and their fellow citizens is.

Next, there is the question of citizenship. Samuelson is concerned about the problems of dual citizenship, birthright citizenship, and the case of Facebook’s Eduardo Saverin and others renouncing their U.S. citizenship. While each specific situation itself is not terribly serious, Samuelson should consider a broader concern which law professor Peter Schuck has called the “devaluation of American citizenship.” The line separating citizen from non-citizen in modern America is increasingly thin. Besides voting and jury duty, there is little difference (and there have been scattered attempts to extend some voting rights to non-citizens). Receiving public benefits and serving in the military, for instance, are open to non-citizens. The Constitution protects the rights of anyone in the country, regardless of their status.

Trans-nationalism is not just an ideology; it is a reality that exists independently of politics, created when modern transportation and communications shrink the world and electronic currency continually crosses national borders. Even if the United States were to stop accepting immigrants, Americans would still end up grappling with the meaning of citizenship in an increasingly globalized world.

Lastly, Samuelson does not dwell much on the economic impact of immigration. I am somewhat skeptical of the hyperbolic complaints regarding income inequality, yet it is also clear that many of the benefits of our current economy go to those with more education and greater skills. Although many high-skilled immigrants are admitted, the United States still has to absorb large numbers of low-skilled immigrants. Will our national economy some day look like California’s, with a shrinking middle class and an increasing divide between wealthy (mostly white and Asian) elites and an increasingly ethnic working class? Can the American economy help boost poor immigrants and their children into the middle class as it did with previous generations of new arrivals? I hope so, but we are going to need stronger economic growth if that ever is to happen.

Samuelson ends his essay on a somewhat odd, but entirely appropriate note. On the one hand, perhaps assimilation will continue to work, he writes, but on the other hand it might not and America will then be faced with a serious, even existential, problem. He does not come to any firm conclusions—and that is a perfectly respectable place to be. We simply do not know how this will all turn out. (If Harry Truman were reading these essays, he would be asking for a one-handed analyst of immigration.)

So let me end my response in a similarly ambivalent, noncommittal way. While I may be more optimistic than Samuelson on this topic, I share some of his concerns. However, it is important to remember that many of the issues he raises are not entirely the creation of immigration. The problems caused by slow growth and weak employment, the troubles of the welfare state, the ebbing faith in our institutions, and the lack of knowledge of or appreciation for American history and patriotism are all domestic issues. They may make the assimilation and acculturation of immigrants more difficult, but immigration is not their immediate cause.

These are our problems. If we lack faith in our government, how do we expect immigrants to trust it? If national policies create a less vibrant economy with fewer opportunities for upward mobility, we should place the blame on our politicians, not immigrants. If more and more native-born Americans embrace multiculturalism, who can blame the immigrant who resists fully embracing the culture and traditions of his adopted land?

Our reactions to immigration are often as much personal as philosophical. I have always been cautiously optimistic about immigration—in part because of my background as the child, grandchild, and great-grandchild of immigrants, but also because I have spent my entire life living in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and have witnessed firsthand the contributions of immigrants to those metropolitan areas. At the public university where I teach, I see diligent immigrant students taking advantage of the opportunity of higher education and the chance to make a better life for themselves and their families.

During our recent economic troubles, more than one observer pointed out that despite our problems, compared to the rest of the world the U.S. economy looks pretty good. We are the best of a bad lot economically speaking. I think we can say something similar regarding immigration. Richard Samuelson has pointed to a number of serious issues. However, compared to the problems faced by the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and other Western societies in assimilating immigrants, America is doing pretty well. Whenever we start to hear the siren song of declinism, a feeling that is easy to succumb to when the world looks as chaotic and troubled as it does today, we should try to keep that in mind.