A 20-year ban on immigration to the United States “with as few exceptions as possible.” This is what Gabriel Ervin, a candidate for Central Student Government president in the last election and the leader of a campus group called the American Revival Front, proposed here a few weeks ago.
Ervin’s main justification for this dramatic suggestion is that immigration drives wages down, so the US government, which has an obligation to current Americans first and foremost, should keep out anyone who wants to become a new American.
Ervin’s argument fails on its own terms. Immigration in fact bears great fruits for the economy. It does not significantly decrease native-born workers’ wages; in the aggregate, immigration actually slightly increases their average wage.
Yes, as with any major policy, there are some costs — but the benefits far outweigh them. The two most recent efforts to exclude large numbers of immigrants — in 1965 and in the 1930s — either had no effect on or decreased employment among native-born workers.
In addition, immigration is a crucial tool in the United States’ strategic competition with the totalitarian, segregationist, and genocidal government of the People’s Republic of China. And as our country ages and birth rates fall, immigration is the only viable way to avoid China’s fate — creeping population collapse and inevitable economic decline.
But Ervin’s view suffers from an even more fundamental defect: All Americans were once new Americans. With the sole exception of Native Americans, there is no such thing as an American who cannot trace their ancestry to someplace else. And even then, the first Native Americans traveled here by land bridge.
We are all new Americans. I am one: My father came to this country from the Netherlands; my mother came from Japan. My partner is an immigrant: She came from Ecuador with her family when she was three years old. They sought to build a new life, and they have.
That is our common heritage. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia told a group of new Americans at a naturalization ceremony at Gettysburg:
It is only Americans, we Americans, who identify ourselves not by our blood or by our color or by our race or by where we were born, but rather by our fidelity to certain political principles. That’s very strange; it’s unique in human history, I believe.
If it is a strange tradition, it is also a venerable one. It should be a source of pride that the title American belongs to anyone who takes to heart the Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, and the principles those documents embody — chiefly that government exists to create the conditions for free people to seek out their own ends according to their own lights.
None of this is to say, of course, that unlawful immigration should be tolerated. The United States is a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of laws. Those two traditions are not incompatible. It is un-American to seek the benefits of citizenship while circumventing the legal process. But crossing oceans and mountains to build a new life in accordance with the law? That is the American tradition.
For generations now, the United States has been the foremost destination for migrants from around the world. It is not even close: The next most popular destination, Germany, is home to less than one-third of the immigrants who have found a place in America. Those who seek to escape war and poverty, those who yearn for freedom and democracy, those who simply want to try their hand at a new life — they look to these shores.
Ervin says “no” to those of us who believe in a moral obligation “to help the world’s poor.” “Dying is dying,” he avers, “and where one dies of starvation or exposure is immaterial.” Of course, the entire point is that the less fortunate will not die, and that they will suffer less, in America. It is a callous defiance of reality to pretend recently arrived Ukrainians or Afghans would see no change in their circumstances if they lived under the specter of Russian bombs or Taliban subjugation.
Immigration is good economics and a wise tool of foreign policy, but that is not the most important reason to uphold our heritage as a nation of immigrants. After all, the validity of any principle worth having does not depend on the job market. The core, dispositive reason is that it is morally right. Because human freedom is right. Because there is nothing real that separates an American born within these borders from an American born anywhere else.
I couldn’t care less if it’s a worn-out, sappy cliché: I unabashedly believe America is and must forever be a nation of immigrants, a shining city on a hill, a country that opens its arms and says, over and over again, “Give me your tired, your poor” — a beacon of freedom, forever.
Many editorial pages have been filled in recent years with acrimonious debates over the true meaning of patriotism, nationalism, and the like. Whatever word one prefers, the fact that any person, from any nation in the world, can come here and become authentically American is part of this nation’s greatness. One of President Ronald Reagan’s most eloquent speeches, delivered in the final days of his presidency, made precisely this point. It is worth quoting at length:
A man wrote me and said: “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”
Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on earth comes close.
Count me with Reagan.