Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Origins of Anti-Immigration Sentiment

I'm amazed at the amount of outrage being expressed at the notion that somebody, somewhere might be receiving medical care while illegally in the US. I wonder if these same people, if they were involved in a car accident while they were speeding, would say, "No, don't treat me. I was breaking the law and don't deserve medical care." Somehow I doubt it.

I'll preface this by saying I'm about as pro-immigrant as you can get. Maybe that's colored by the fact that the only person I know who is definitely an illegal immigrant is an entrepreneur employing several people in his successful software company (and paying taxes on it, too). Doesn't seem like we should be trying to kick this guy out of the country. But beyond personal experience, I also know history. I know that the US has always had a lot of immigration, and that's been a source of strength, not weakness. People have always worried about whether the new immigrants will assimilate, and point to the previous immigrants as "good" immigrants while the current immigrants are "bad" immigrants. Heck, near my hometown of Kansas City was an entire region around Hermann, MO, that was almost exclusively German for decades. Schools taught in German, public signs were largely in German, etc. And what did it hurt? Nothing. The second generation, born in the US, eventually integrated into US culture, influencing it but not overwhelming it, and our country did not turn into Germany. In fact, Hermann and the region are a popular tourism destination in Missouri because of all the authentic German character in the region.

To me, immigration is simply a natural expression of free markets at work. I like free markets. I've devoted a lot of space on this blog to pointing out cases where markets break down. But this is an area where I don't see the failures being more costly than the benefits of markets. Let workers go where the jobs are, and let things sort themselves out. Yes, this will mean people will enter our country who are willing to work harder for less money. But that's not necessarily a bad thing...after all, I thought we were a country that supported hard work. There will be challenges, but they will mainly be related to income distribution, which is something we're dealing with anyway. And I refuse to accept that the solution to maintaining a decent middle-class standard of living is to exclude certain groups of people and relegate them to poverty. Oddly, many people who claim to support free markets also want closed borders.

More tellingly, I know the legal history of anti-immigration laws. (Read a summary here) For nearly the first hundred years of our nation, there was no such thing as "illegal" immigration. Our nation was open to anybody, although ideally they would be white people, but that wasn't written into law, yet. I always find it ironic when anti-immigration folks invoke the Constitution or the founding fathers. Our country was founded on the notion that anybody who came to our country (as long as they were white) could become a citizen. As citizenship was expanded to more non-white people, people decided they'd better do something to keep more non-whites from moving here. The first law making any form of immigration illegal wasn't passed until 1875. While on the surface it was aimed at "prostitutes", the reality was it was simply a cover to exclude Chinese women from entering the country, and hopefully that would keep the men out as well (reference). Soon after, we would add more laws that were more explicit in who we wanted to keep out: Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Alien Contract Labor laws (1885 & 1887) which singled out specific nationalities, Immigration Acts of 1903 & 1907 to clamp down on Mexicans entering the country, etc. Basically after 100 years of open immigration, our nation entered a hundred year period of race-based exclusion. It wasn't until 1976 that laws were changed to stop giving preference to Western European immigrants--officially anyway. You don't have to talk to many people to realize there's still racial under-tones that determine who the "good" immigrants are and who the "bad" ones are. The fact is banning immigration is not in the spirit of our nation. When we have banned immigration, it has overwhelmingly been for racist reasons.

Do we really want to maintain the legacy of race-based exclusion, or embrace the original ideal of a nation open to all?


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