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This excellent article reviews an immigration restrictionist book, presents the principles which should inform all debates on immigration and describes what makes an American.

What is an American?

A review of Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis by Otis L. Graham, Jr.

By Tom Krannawitter
Posted December 21, 2004

"America must be kept American," wrote Calvin Coolidge, one of the last presidents to understand and defend the principles of the American Founding. Perhaps no question of public policy today cuts to the core meaning of America as much as immigration, with its many implications for American citizenship. Otis Graham, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, approvingly quotes Coolidge in his book, and by doing so points to a problem intrinsic to immigration: making new Americans American. Unfortunately, Graham never explains what it means to be an American, and he shines no light on the principles that would help Americans understand themselves—not only who and what they are, but who and what they are becoming.

Graham does accomplish a few things in Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis. He provides a comprehensive and informed history of American immigration policy spanning from George Washington to George W. Bush, which is the overt purpose of the book. And he identifies and narrates the changing tides of immigration throughout American history, first from Northern and Western Europe, then from Southern and Eastern Europe, and later from Central America and Asia.

Graham's account of the first serious debates about restricting immigration beginning in the 1880s and culminating in the national quotas policy of 1924 is particularly informative. He is also good on the new immigration regime epitomized by the 1965 Immigration Act, which Graham laments as "the Great Society's most nation-changing single act." Most importantly, though, Graham shows his readers the genuine difficulty in reaching an agreement over how to control growing waves of unsolicited immigration. The United States had no real immigration policy for the first hundred years—before 1820, the United States did not even keep any records of who came into the country and who left. As the numbers of immigrants swelled in the 1890s, writes Graham, "the largest problem was the lack of clear ideas, based on experience, as to what to do to bring under national control something that had never been controlled by public policy: mass migration."

The author does not shy away from describing the real and many problems associated with high rates of immigration—depressed wages and increased competition for low-paying jobs, foreign-born diseases, over-population threats to the environment, challenges to American civic culture, and, especially after 9/11, breeches of national security. Graham shows how Americans at different times in their history have responded, or failed to respond, to these problems, urging throughout that "to reduce social conflict over immigration, lower the numbers."

In Graham's universe there are only two opposing camps: Restrictionists and Expansionists. Restrictionists favor no illegal immigration and minimal legal immigration. Expansionists seem unable to make any principled argument for limiting immigration, legal or illegal. The distinction cuts across party lines, as well as any differences between conservatives and liberals. For example, he tries to enlist liberal support for restricting immigration by reminding readers that unions, dating back to the days of Samuel Gompers, traditionally opposed high rates of immigration because of the downward pressure it exercised on wages. Knowing that liberals support redistribution of income from the rich to the poor, he quotes Harvard economist George Borjas who describes those supporting the immigration status quo as "supporting an astonishing transfer of wealth from the poorest people in the country, who are disproportionately minorities, to the rich." "Immigration is an income redistribution program," but one that directs the flow of money the wrong way, at least for the liberal conscience.

For Graham, the difference between Restrictionism and Expansionism is simple and clear: Restrictionism good, Expansionism bad. Expansionists pander to special interests, sweep aside concerns for national interest and national security, and in the end lack any coherent argument for their position, taking an ostrich's approach to the well-documented and mounting costs and threats of runaway immigration. Restrictionists on the other hand, according to Graham, clearly see the harm done to America by rates of legal and illegal immigration beyond the absorbing capacity of American society and economy, and they advance the common good by upholding a common American culture, and seeking to secure American borders and to limit the competition for American jobs.

Indeed, one of Graham's primary concerns is to defend contemporary Restrictionism, especially against those who identify it with 19th-century nativism. By placing Restrictionists in a nativist light, Graham argues, Expansionists have successfully discredited Restrictionism as being motivated by bigotry and xenophobia.

Graham seeks to make today's public discussions over immigration more honest by removing nativism, placing it in its proper historical context, and showing its irrelevance to America's contemporary immigration crisis. While Graham does not hide the ugly racism that sometimes attended nativism, he also highlights the concerns of many good-willed Americans over the waves of European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nativism included both these baser and nobler elements of the American mind, but at its best, Graham believes, it represented a genuinely patriotic concern about the future of our country. Still, Graham insists that whatever merits and flaws nativism may have had, it has nothing to do with today's Restrictionist movement, which is guided by the growing and documented costs of immigration, no less than the wishes of the American people to better control their own borders.

Yet, for someone who wants to put nativism back in history where it belongs, and debate immigration policy solely on its merits, Graham's partisan prose sometimes is over the top. When three-time Colorado Governor Richard Lamm—a Democratic critic of mass immigration—was defeated in his run for the U.S. Senate by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was much softer on immigration, Graham is almost unable to contain himself: "The Lord sent Colorado voters an Indian, and they voted affirmative action."


* * *

What's more, Graham never addresses the basic principles which should inform all debates over immigration. Let us, therefore, offer the following axioms as the beginning points for any intelligent and principled discussion immigration:

First, the United States is a sovereign nation. American sovereignty derives from the social compact—the voluntary consent of the men and women who live under its laws, the only legitimate source of sovereignty. Our government rests on our social compact, and its only purpose is to protect the rights of those who have given their consent to the compact. As our Declaration of Independence states, "that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."


Second, intrinsic to the idea of sovereignty is the distinction between those who are and those who are not part of the social compact. We may invite others from around the world to join our compact, and in fact America has a long and noble tradition of welcoming millions from around the globe who have come in search of civil and religious liberty and economic prosperity. But whether we admit one person or one million persons is a question to be answered entirely at our discretion. We certainly wish the best for the people of the world—and we have left for them the premier example of what free government looks like, and the sacrifices required to found and sustain free government. As our Declaration says, any people finding themselves under tyrannical government possess the natural right "to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." But Americans are under no obligation to offer asylum or refuge to anyone from anywhere outside the United States, just as no nation had a responsibility to house oppressed Americans in 1776.


Third, the distinction between those we welcome and those we want to keep out—say, terrorists whose purpose is to kill Americans—requires first and foremost that the American government secure our borders. The border must be real, and it must be able to protect American citizens from immigrants who enter our country illegally, a growing number of whom come armed and with criminal records (in some cases violent crimes committed here in the U.S.). Without secured borders, the American people cannot decide who will partake in the social compact they formed among themselves for their mutual protection.

Debates over American immigration will not be serious until these principles are understood and accepted by the American people and the policymakers they elect to office. When Restrictionists such as Graham cite the economic costs, cultural costs, and environmental costs of immigration, these may all be true—but they are not principles. They are only practical considerations Americans should take into account when formulating policy. Sound policy cannot be reached without starting from right principles.

Of all the problems discussed in Unguarded Gates, Graham is most troubled by the need for what he calls "social cohesion." It is true that America's success depends on shared beliefs among its citizens about the nature of American life and the purposes of American government. But "social cohesion" merely implies a culture that is common. What ought the character of that culture be? This question points to the supreme importance of citizenship. For a nation of people with such diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, it is especially important to understand what unites Americans as citizens.

Graham cherishes the period after World War I, when a combination of new immigration policy and war gave America a half-century of relief from mass immigration, and when, according to Graham, immigrants had the opportunity to assimilate into American culture. These men and women became "patriotic Americans who voted for the social reforms of the New Deal and stormed the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific." Without question or qualification, the immigrants who served America in the war against German Nazism and Japanese imperialism deserve our deepest gratitude. But to equate the meaning of American patriotism with the "reforms" of the New Deal is to display a massive misunderstanding of American citizenship. The New Deal represents the precise moment when American public policy rejected the principles of the American Founding and began substituting a bureaucratic welfare state for constitutional government, leaving in its wake generations of dependent citizens, broken families, and increasingly burdensome regulations. If this is the model of American citizenship for Graham, his proposals can only make America worse, not better.

What unites all Americans and makes our country great is the proposition that all men are equal in their natural right to govern themselves. More important than job training or education, America should invite those who want to become Americans, who understand that the security of their own rights is bound to the security of the equal rights of their fellow citizens. Not unlike admission to America's premier colleges and universities, admission to the premier country in the world should be based on intention and talent. We should welcome those who want to participate in and contribute to the American experiment in freedom, who believe in the American principles of limited government, strong families, and free society—not those who wish to turn America into something else.

Just before his memorable phrase that America must be kept American, Calvin Coolidge reminded his fellow Americans that "American institutions rest solely on good citizenship. They were created by people who had a background of self government. New arrivals should be limited by our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship." Let us recall the principles that have made this country the envy of the world. Let us train a new generation of politicians in those principles, politicians who can tap into what is best in the American people—their love of human equality and fairness, their desire to live freely and live well under a government of limited power. Then, and only then, will we discover statesmen who can formulate immigration policies that truly aim to protect the rights of Americans and offer better lives for those who join us.

Tom Krannawitter is the Vice President of the Claremont Institute.

Copyright 2004, The Claremont Institute.

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Copyright 2004 Washington Republican National Hispanic Assembly
Last modified: 04/14/05