Objection #1: "We Already Let in Enough Immigrants"
A brief history of immigration policy in the United States tells a different story
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus
This post is the second in a series of articles debunking the most common populist arguments against (mostly) open immigration, based on my dozens of interviews on the topic since I began broadcasting The Bob Zadek Show in 2008.
One of the most common complaints from those who would deny immigrants access to this country is that there are simply too many of them here already. This sentiment was expressed clearly and concisely by a caller to my show named Joel, who asked:
“I’ve got a question for you. The United States has over a million people every year become citizens. Sounds like we're pretty open to immigration now, no?”
This common refrain is the first of several objections I will take up in this series – answering the populist position on America’s borders with a rational fact-based discussion. To fully answer Joel’s question, we have to examine the full sweep of immigration history in this country.
America is, as the saying goes, a nation of immigrants. For the first 100 years or so, a time in which we enjoyed profound economic growth in this country, there were virtually no immigration restrictions whatsoever. It was truly the Bob Zadek rule of “Let them all in.” Anyone willing to abide by our rules and sign on to our political philosophy of freedom was welcome, as they should have been. This system worked well from the founding of our country through the 1880s. We became a country of unparalleled growth and opportunity and we were truly the shining city on the hill – a magnet for entrepreneurs and freedom-lovers from around the world.
So how have we decided, as a nation, what constitutes the “right amount” of immigration?
Essential Liberty offers a review of current events through the time-tested principles of limited government & individual freedom.
What does the Constitution Say About Immigration?
There is very little in the Constitution about either immigration or the criteria for citizenship. There is one provision – Article One, Section VIII, Clause IV – which empowers Congress to establish a uniform rule for naturalization, the process of becoming an American citizen. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states had been establishing their own rules about citizenship – lacking this uniform rule. That framework simply wouldn't have worked long-term in a unified country.
However, despite the authorization of Congress to regulate naturalization, there was nothing in the Constitution about restricting immigration, or who could come here to live and work.
The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh summarizes the early history of immigration in this country:
Alex Nowrasteh: Up until 1875, there were no federal restrictions on immigration. It was assumed that the states were the ports of entry, and the states would be the ones that would handle this. The first immigration and naturalization law was passed by the US Congress in 1790. It was one paragraph long, and it had zero restrictions on immigration. It didn't even mention immigration. It was essentially an open borders law that regulated who could become a citizen.
There were some nasty rules in there, but there were no restrictions on anyone coming here on the basis of race or country of origin… The idea was that anybody could come here. There was no inspections. There were no quotas.
The nasty rules he refers to were restrictions that reserved citizenship for Europeans who had lived here for two years or more. Anyone, however, was allowed to come here to live and work.
Nowrasteh is careful to distinguish between immigration and naturalization.
Naturalization is when you become a citizen: you can vote and fully participate in politics. Just being an immigrant, however, doesn't mean that you have those rights or those abilities. Just because we had this open system that allowed people to come, doesn't mean that we handed out citizenship to everybody who came here. There was a long process to become a citizen. It took years back in the 19th century, and it takes years today. It's important to lay out that distinction – we allow people to come here to work and live, but the government has always been more restrictive of who it allows to vote.
The Founders recognized that people are born with certain inherent, natural rights – including the freedom to travel and to improve yourself – as long as you don't compromise the property or rights of another person. We saw these principles in the previous essay, in the wording of the Declaration of Independence, which accused the King of England of “endeavour[ing] to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
Perhaps the unnaturalized immigrants who came here weren't always welcome in the communities that they choose to join. Their behavior was seen by some to be strange. They often spoke different languages, and therefore, the social system was slow to assimilate these newcomers. Social systems are comprised of many individuals acting privately, but as a political system – a country of laws – America welcomed all immigrants.
Congress Assumes Plenary Powers
Throughout the 1870s, there were only a handful of immigration laws passed, and none restricted absolute numbers of immigrants or banned specific ethnicities.
“Indeed,” Nowrasteh notes, “in the 1860s, the government went to the other extreme – subsidizing immigration from Europe – advertising to try to get more people to come here.”
Things started to change when we started to develop an immigration policy in the 1880s. This was when the government put in place the first-ever quotas and limitations based on nationality.:
AN: Beginning in 1875, the Federal government started to ban criminals, prostitutes, and other people who they considered to be moral degenerates. But it wasn’t until a case in 1889 that the Supreme Court found that the federal government has power to restrict immigration [see Chae Chan Ping v. United States, aka The Chinese Exclusion Case].
Ever since, Congress has assumed something called plenary power over immigration, which basically means they can do whatever they want without restriction. This was judge-made law that granted the government power to do whatever they want regarding immigration, due to the fact that the U.S. Congress has sovereignty in the United States.
This is not consistent with what the Founders believed. There is no sovereignty clause in the Constitution that says that Congress has power over immigration. It was just assumed that any sovereign government would be able to do this by the time this Supreme Court case was decided. However, all of the other powers that we assume a sovereign government has – from raising an army to levying taxes to organize itself – were all spelled out in detail in the Constitution. Immigration was not.
It seems fair to say that the Founders didn’t want the Federal government to be able to limit immigration. They thought the states would play a role and keep out those who were undesirable. Immigration law today is second in complexity to the income tax code on U.S. books. This outcome was unimaginable to people in the past. It was just assumed that free people would be able to come here, to live and work, and most of them would eventually be able to become citizens.
Fast forward to today, and it’s the exact opposite. The assumption in American law today is that nobody is allowed to come with the exception of a handful of individuals selected by the government.
Ever since Congress assumed powers over immigration, the legislation it has passed has never been based upon fact but rather upon the crudest form of bigotry:
The intent of [the 1875] law was to try to exclude Chinese women who were coming over to meet male Chinese immigrants who had come over to work in the Gold Rush, or in other industries in California. It started to get really ugly in 1882, the year that Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, imposing the first ever quotas and limitations based on a nationality. That law did exactly what it sounds like it did – it banned Chinese immigrants from coming into the United States.
The motivations behind the Chinese Exclusion Act were a mixture of old-fashioned racism and old-fashioned collusion by economic interests to keep out the competition:
[T]he Chinese Exclusion Act was pushed, of course, by union interests. On the West Coast, and especially in the San Francisco Bay Area at that time, there were a lot of Chinese immigrants coming in and working in cigar manufacturing. The head of the American Federation for Labor cigar union in that part of the country, Samuel Gompers – who himself was an immigrant from the United Kingdom – pushed for the ban, because he thought that they were competing too intensely with the white workers in the cigar and cigarette manufacturing industry in the Bay Area.
Later, in the 1880s, laws were passed against the importation of workers who could break up labor unions. You had a gentlemen's agreements between Japan and the United States that would stop Japanese immigration to the United States. In other words, unions colluded to protect the few at the expense of the many. Even more seriously, they sacrificed one of America's first principles: the rights and freedom of travel from place to place, and the opportunity for people to make their lives better.
In case you needed more evidence that early immigration laws were not fact-based, Nowrasteh recounts the following shocking history of early 20th century anti-immigration legislation:
AN: There was a congressional-led commission between about 1907 and 1911 called the Dillingham Commission, that investigated immigration and tried to come up with reasons [to restrict it]. It was stacked entirely with anti-immigration activists, labor union people, and academics. There was only one person on the entire commission who was supportive of immigration.
At the time, people realized that the “facts” that were produced by this commission were generally unsupportable garbage. For example, they argued that the children of Jewish immigrants in the United States had an average IQ of around 66, which would put them in the category of being severely mentally disabled. [They said] that this was a genetic predisposition, and that Jewish immigrants and their descendants would never ever be able to rise above basically being mentally handicapped. That is the type of “fact” that they were using at that time.
The End of the Ellis Island Policy & Beginning of the Restrictive Progressive Era
Despite these dark marks on our early history of immigration policy, the so-called Ellis Island Era from 1892 to 1924 was still a period of relatively open borders. Close to 40 percent of all current U.S. citizens are estimated to be able to trace at least one of their ancestors to Ellis Island. Unfortunately, despite the enormous economic growth during this period, increasing levels of xenophobia culminated in an unholy alliance between the labor movement, progressive politicians, and nativist Americans. Together, these factions passed the sweeping immigration restrictions that characterized the so-called Progressive Era. Nowrasteh summarizes the shift that took place at the turn of the 20th century:
AN: From 1880 to about 1930 was the most xenophobic period of American immigration law. But it wasn't just racists. There was also an unholy alliance between [the racists and xenophobes] and the late-19th century progressives. Labor unions were supporting immigration bans for their own reasons as well…
[T]hese immigration restrictions increased over the entire length of the Progressive Era in this country from the 1880s to the 1920s. In 1917, a law was passed that banned illiterate immigrants and almost all immigrants from Africa and the rest of Asia coming to the United States. Finally, after World War I, there was a law passed in 1921, called the Emergency Quota Act, which put numerical quotas on immigrants from Europe for the first time – with the intent and the effect being to discriminate against eastern and southern European immigrants, and favor northern and western European immigrants. That law was solidified and made more exclusive by banning many categories of southern and Eastern European immigrants in 1924. These rules became more and more strict until we literally closed the border to almost all immigrants in the late-1920s.
In 1929, Herbert Hoover issued an executive order banning almost all immigrants from Europe through the rest of the Great Depression.
During this same period, the size of government was increasing throughout the country. This period of intense nativism and immigration restrictions coincided with the creation of the Federal Reserve System, the nationalizing of the currency, the creation of the income tax, and prohibition of alcohol. These were all efforts to centralize in Washington the economic and social decision making that had taken place on the individual level prior to that. It's not a coincidence that immigration restrictions are one of the most important parts of this Progressive Era’s increase in centralized control.
Today, the same conservatives and Republicans who understand that the income tax, the Federal Reserve, and Prohibition were bad policies still cling to this notion that Progressive Era immigration restrictions were somehow good for the United States then, and are good for us now.
It must be repeated that all of these various exclusionary laws were not based upon any core principle other than bigotry – dislike. There were no fact-findings that supported any of these laws, and they were not based on principles, unless you want to cite ugly principles.
Comparing Past & Present
With this historical understanding at our disposal, we can return to Joel’s question at the beginning of this chapter and see that current immigration levels are not all that high by historical standards. We can compare the early Ellis Island policy, which saw over a million people naturalized or immigrate per year when the United States was just a third of the current population. The percentage of immigrants as a fraction of the total population peaked between 1870 and 1910 at close to 15%. That percentage plummeted at the beginning of the Progressive Era, reaching just 4.7% of the population in 1970.
Today, immigration rates have risen, but have never returned to the Ellis Island levels. Nowrasteh makes the relevant comparison between the U.S. and other developed nations in the present day, to show how America has ceased to be the welcoming beacon of liberty it once was when it comes to immigration:
AN: As Americans, we pat ourselves on the back for being uniquely a “nation of immigrants,” but comparing our statistics to other countries’ reveals that there are a lot of other places in the world that can claim the same thing. Canada is more open to immigration than the United States. Their foreign-born population is about 20%.
Australia’s is 20%. Switzerland’s is 25%. Even a country like Germany has about the same percentage of foreign born people of the United States does.
[The traditional system] was much more orderly than the massive, bureaucratized immigration enforcement system that we have right now. We've turned our back on our traditional pro-immigration stance – moreso than any country in the world.
I can't think of another country that has had a better experience with immigration over the centuries, and yet the political party that brands itself as conservative – that says they look back to America's past for how to change policy going forward – cannot find any inspiration on immigration from this past.
The quota system from the 1920s is still in place today, which is why it's so difficult to immigrate here. Today, people who come here illegally do so primarily because it has become so difficult to come here legally.
“You can’t just go through some easy process and immigrate here,” Nowrasteh says, “There's a very restrictive set of rules that you have to follow, that most people simply don't qualify for.”
One of the bedrock founding principles of our country is the distaste for any form of hereditary status. Unlike the United Kingdom. We have no “peerage” system or Royal Family in the U.S. We have always, in our gut, disliked heritable statuses of any kind. And yet the status of living in America is in itself an inherited status. If I am the child of an American, I am an American. It is nothing other than the accident of birth. Thus, a country that was founded despising peerage now promotes peerage today. That is contrary to our core values. Yet time after time, we’ve used heredity as the criteria for determining who gets the privilege of become a U.S. citizen., while ignoring the fact that our unique American heritage rejects this criteria.
In response to the objection that we have too much immigration currently, I’ll give Nowrasteh the last word:
AN: It's really remarkable that a so-called conservative can look at entirety of America's history, be proud of it, and then say but we need to change this fundamental aspect of it – that we need to have less immigration going forward. It boggles the mind.
This post is the second in a series of articles debunking the most common populist arguments against (mostly) open immigration, based on my dozens of interviews on the topics since I began broadcasting The Bob Zadek Show in 2008.
What Part of Illegal Immigration Are You Against? Alex Nowrasteh Returns, June 10, 2019
Alex Nowrasteh: How Prop. 187 Turned California Blue, Nov. 20, 2016
Immigration Nation: Nowrasteh Sets it Straight Again, December 20, 2015
Immigrants - The Ultimate Entrepreneurs, August 18, 2013
Let Them All In, May 5, 2013