Immigration Nation

This land is your land, this land is my land….well unless you’re ‘undesirable’…then you need to get out…

“our ancestors, before their emigration to America…possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness…Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependance asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated…”

~Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, July 1774 (emphasis added by me)

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By arguing that colonial America possessed certain freedoms the British crown could not throw away, Thomas Jefferson started with an incredibly interesting idea – that people have a fundamental right to choose the country they live in.  Or basically, emigration and therefore immigration are part of the framework of a free society.  Not everyone wins the birth lottery.  It was certainly logical.  After all, the founding fathers were all immigrants or the immediate descendants of immigrants.  In the atmosphere of Colonial America, there was no denying this immigrant heritage, even among those who were a few generations removed from it.   With Native Americans still present in abundance and most people still considering themselves citizens of the mother country to some degree, there was absolutely no question that America was a land of and for immigrants.  In fact, society couldn’t function without this immigration because there simply weren’t enough people to do every job that needed doing, which was one of the biggest reasons for the mass importation of slave labor from Africa.  As a nation, then and now, we’re not only descended from immigrants, we’re descended from immigrants who came here outside the law.  At least today’s modern immigrants aren’t murdering people and then settling in their houses.  The original immigrants to America also kidnapped people from other lands and forcibly brought them to this country in bondage.  So to pretend today that we as a nation are not a land of immigrants is ludicrous.

The real irony is that immigration has become such a hot topic issue.  It’s not exactly as if we’re a country teeming with people, with a population literally bursting at the seams.  In fact, we don’t even make the top 10 of the most densely populated countries (that’s to say our population per square mile).  And at 315.5 million, we may be the world’s 3rd most populous people, but the top two contenders, India and China, have populations well over 1 billion.  It’s not like we don’t have plenty of room!  And while the economy may not be so hot at the moment, it’s not like immigrants are really “taking” anyone’s jobs.  It’s an unfortunate reality that immigrants by and large end up with the jobs non-immigrants simply won’t do (a lot like how slaves ended up on plantations-the regular American colonists didn’t particularly want to do the back-breaking labor involved).  So what’s really driving the attitude shift towards immigration?  Lets be really honest….it’s the same thing that caused people to be anti-Chinese immigration or anti-Irish immigration in the 1800s….FEAR.  The Americans of the day were worried that these newcomers, with different habits and different languages might somehow fundamentally alter the America they knew.  It never happened of course.  America is famous as a melting-pot for a reason.  We may sometimes eat Chinese food or celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but we adapted those customs to suit our dominant culture, not the other way around.  Our society has always adapted to various waves of immigrants by incorporating some things, and letting the rest phase out naturally as the children of immigrants become Americanized.  The system works.

The idea of illegal versus legal immigration is just a modern twist on the same fear-mongering that drove other previous generations of Americans to be virulently anti-immigrant.  Let’s be really honest, most of the immigration by pretty much everyone’s families before this century was essentially illegal, or at best extra-legal.  The longer your family has been American, the more likely it is that your ancestors came here outside any law.  The first laws that even address these issues were actually laws for naturalization, or allowing an immigrant to become an American citizen with the right to vote.  In fact the first true immigration law didn’t occur until the late 1800s, and it didn’t govern immigration on the whole, but rather excluded one particular group (the Chinese).  In the 1900s, immigration laws that utilized a quota system came into vogue, and remained until the 1960s.  Current immigration laws emphasize family reunification, which essentially means people with relatives who are already here have a much easier time getting through the complex maze of legal immigration to the United States.  What really drives the problem today is that legal immigration is now very, very difficult.  This is somewhat amusing when you consider that the people whose families are descended from the very first Pilgrims came here completely illegally.  And it’s vaguely embarrassing that an immigrant nation like our own has made it so difficult for others to immigrate here in the modern day.  But if we’re really wondering what the founding fathers would have thought about immigration, or what their original intent there was, lets at least be honest with ourselves – ours is an immigration nation.  The founding fathers were immigrants and they were proud of it.

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America, July 1774

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch14s10.html

Electronic Text Courtesy of University of Chicago Press

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