They’re coming to America … and many citizens of the United States don’t like it. A frightening number of those citizens seem less concerned about the distinction between legal immigration and illegal residence* than about immigration in general. They blame all immigrants for what they perceive as a nation in decline. America just isn’t the great nation it used to be.
At midnight on September 1, 2016 … a few hours after Donald Trump presented his immigration plan, Rachel Maddox had this to say about the Nativism that Mr. Trump and some of his alt-right followers are espousing (16:23):
That is, of course, Rachel’s “less than humble opinion”, but I agree with her. I do not blame immigrants (legal or illegal) for our problems. In fact, I believe that immigration restrictions are hypocritical and that most of our immigration restrictions over the years have been abominations.
I am not a recent immigrant to the United States. Unlike Donald Trump, all of my grandparents were born here. Unlike Hillary Clinton, all of my great-grandparents were born here. While a few of my ancestors are relatively recent immigrants (early 1800s), 65 of them moved to one of the original 13 colonies before 1776. Another 61 were born here before the American Revolution. I’ve noticed that many of the most xenophobic U.S. citizens are second, third, and fourth generation “newcomers”. I’ve noted my genealogy in the hope of adding a level of credence to my perspective.
Is Lady Liberty Lying to Us?
There’s a plaque mounted inside the base of the Statue of Liberty.
This plaque bears the words of a poem called “The New Colossus”. The poem was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 to raise money for the construction of Lady Liberty’s pedestal. The words of the poem are:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
The words most relevant to this discussion are the ones quoted by Rachel Maddow in the video clip above. These are, in fact, the most often quoted part of the poem:
“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!”
As a country of immigrants; a mosaic of cultures drawn from all peoples of the world … across more than two centuries, these words express an ideal, a pledge, and a goal. Is this promise of freedom, opportunity, and compassion real or just empty words? Is Lady Liberty lying to us?
Keeping America White Since Then
Through most of our history, our immigration laws have been more focused on keeping out “undesirables” than anything else. Sometimes the focus was blatantly obvious. Sometimes there was an attempt to cloak the focus by selective implementation. Here’s a brief history:
- The Page Act of 1875 was supposed to impose a fine of $2,000 and maximum sentence of one year in jail on anyone who brought a laborer from China for what was, effectively, indentured servitude and to bar the immigration of “immoral Chinese women”. In practice, the part about the laborers was generally ignored. The second part was vigorously enforced … and seemed to consider all Chinese women immoral. The men came here to work, but could not bring their wives. Prostitution was exacerbated rather than curbed.
- The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers. It was supposed to expire in 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. The law wasn’t repealed until the end of 1943 … 61 years later.
- The Immigration Act of 1917 created the Asiatic Barred Zone adding much of the rest of Asia and the Pacific Islands to China. No one from the zone was allowed to immigrate to the United States. The act also banned certain undesirables including “homosexuals, idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, epileptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars, all persons mentally or physically defective, polygamists, anarchists, and illiterates over the age of 16″. (I’m glad my paternal great-grandfather was already a citizen. Like me, he had epilepsy.)
- In 1921, The Emergency Quota Act limited the number immigrants from any country to 3% of the number of residents from that country already living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 Census. The formula was biased toward northern and western European countries and against those in southern and eastern Europe. Most Asians were still banned. No limits were placed on immigration from Latin America.
- In a further effort to maintain population homogeneity, The Immigration Act of 1924 reduced the immigration limit to 2% of the number of people from that country who were living in the United States based on the 1890 Census. It still set no limits on immigration from Latin America. (Apparently, WASP America had not yet learned to hate Hispanics.)
- The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 organized immigration rules into a single body of text … Title 8 of the United States Code (8 U.S.C. ch. 12) … which has remained in effect since December 1952. The act abolished racial restrictions, but retained a quota system for regions and nationalities. It allowed the government to deport immigrants or naturalized citizens deemed to be engaged in subversive activity. It specified which ethnic groups were “desirable” placing great importance on labor. President Truman tried to veto the bill. His veto message said:
Today, we are “protecting” ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic. … We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again….These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law.
In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.
Congress overrode the President’s veto.
- The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 modified the quota system to one based on country rather than nationality. It restricted visas to 170,000 per year, but relatives and certain “special immigrants” (e.g., ministers, former government employees, medical graduates, etc.) were exempt from restrictions.
- The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it illegal for employees to knowingly recruit illegal residents. It legalized certain seasonal migrant workers and “legalized illegal residents who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt; candidates were required to prove that they were not guilty of crimes, that they were in the country before January 1, 1982, and that they possessed, at least, a minimal knowledge about U.S. history, government, and the English language”.
- The Immigration Act of 1990 set the overall limit on immigration to 700,000 from 1992 through 1994. Thereafter, the limit would be 675,000. That number continues to be our limit on immigration today.
Misconceptions and Bare-faced Lies
As you can see, our immigration laws have quite often been made, used, and abused to slow, if not prevent, cultural and racial diversity. We brag about being a melting pot that creates a new nationality from the old nations and cultures while desperately trying to limit the ingredients in the pot … as if we want to be “Northwestern Europe Light”. Nativists try to hide that from themselves by focusing on other ideas that “prove” immigrants … especially those who arrived or stayed illegally … are undesirable:
They take our jobs. Really? Unskilled, low-paying, off-the-books work is always available. You just need to be willing to do them. High-skilled jobs always exceed those available to fill them. Illegal residents can’t get most of the jobs in the middle. Illegal residents aren’t the ones who send manufacturing jobs to China and technical jobs to India..
“They’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime; they’re rapists …” Some are; most aren’t. They’re bringing drugs because we’re a good market for those drugs. Crime has dropped in Colorado since the recreational use of marijuana was decriminalized. Citizens; not illegal residents are responsible for most violent crimes. The only crime committed by most illegal residents is violating our immigration laws. According to current law, all illegal residents are subject to deportation. This has been true for decades. That being the case, answer this. If you were to sneak into a country for more opportunity, for more freedom, to escape oppression, etc., would you do anything to draw attention to yourself … or would you “lay-low”? If I were an illegal resident, I’d do my best to scrupulously obey every other law.
We need to control our population. Perhaps we do, but limiting immigration is not going to help much. The combined limit on U.S. visas across all countries is 675,000. Because our birth rate exceeds our death rate, our population increases by about 1 person every 12 seconds … 2,629,656 persons each year. That’s about 3.9 times the population increase from immigration. We could increase our visa limit to 2 million and it will still be only 76% of current birth/death rate..
They use public resources but pay no taxes. In fact, illegal residents do pay taxes … about $11.6 billion per year. Some percentage of illegal residents have false or expired Social Security numbers. They pay all taxes including Federal Income Tax and OASDI (payments for Social Security that they’ll probably never collect). Many file their income tax returns using a special number provided by the IRS. Almost all illegal residents pay state and local taxes like state income tax and/or sales tax (in some states), property tax (directly or rolled into their rent), local excise taxes, etc.
They don’t speak English. A lot of citizens don’t speak Standard American English. How often have you heard someone say, “I seen” rather than “I saw”?. (I know of someone who is a main character on a History Channel “reality” show who does that. I find it really annoying.) How often have you heard someone say, “I could care less” or “very unique”? Those are just the grammatical errors. Accents are another block to spoken communication. Some parts of the country can barely understand each other even though they’re both speaking the U.S. variant of English.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The Nativists are wrong. They and their ideological predecessors always have been. Their solution is counter to the deepest parts of our national psyche, but … we still have a problem. There are an estimated 11 to 13 million illegal residents living in the United States. Contrary to Nativist claims, the Obama administration has deported more illegal residents than any other in our history. The majority of the deportations have been criminals. A conservative estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants who are criminals (beyond their undocumented status) is 500,000. After all of the criminals are gone, we still have 10.5 to 12.5 million illegal residents to consider. While we’re deporting the criminals and considering the others, we need a change at our borders.
Many years ago (in the late 1970s or early 1980s), my family visited New Brunswick, Canada for a week or so. Crossing the border was easier than it is now. We didn’t need visas. (We had our birth certificates in case we needed them to return. We didn’t need them.) People living in towns on or adjacent to the border crossed the border regularly … sometimes several times a day … without question. It’s not that easy now. On that count, the 9/11 Terrorists won.
While not quite as open as our Canadian border, life along our border with Mexico was simpler pre-9/11. The Border Patrol was concerned with stopping criminals (mostly smugglers). Migrant workers went relatively unmolested. People living in towns on either side of the border were neighbors; not enemies. The few “coyotes” who existed worked for themselves; not crime syndicates. That time has passed … another win for the terrorists.
So what do we do? Physical barriers are impractical and run counter to our cultural ideals. Although I believe immigration limits to be offensive and highly subject to abuse, I understand that it’s prudent to bar criminals and xenophobes from other countries (aka terrorists). We need laws that make it easy to separate our neighbors from our enemies.
Perhaps we need to create neighbor visas and migrant/unskilled worker visas. (If we have the equivalent of either of those, we need to double or triple the number available.) These visas need to be cheap and easy to obtain through a highly efficient process that properly filters out “the bad guys”. (As Oscar Goldman said to Dr. Rudy Wells, “We have the technology”.) Neighbor visas might have a 3 year renewal cycle. Migrant/Unskilled worker visas might have a renewal cycle similar to other work visas. (I’m guessing on these intervals. I couldn’t locate information on current renewal rules. Those who understand current law should be able to figure it out.)
These neighbor visas would restore a combined sense of community to places like Derby, Vermont/the Rock Island district of Stanstead, Quebec and Calexico, California/Mexicali, Mexico. The migrant/unskilled worker visa will add stability to the unskilled labor force that’s often needed on a seasonal basis and eliminate two groups of “criminals” … the laborers and their employers. Real criminals will find it more difficult to slip across the borders because they rather than law enforcement will be a danger to the workers with visas. Both neighbor and migrant/unskilled worker visas will make it more difficult for the fox to hide among the dogs.
Inside adjacent towns, we’ll need few, if any, border guards. Neighbors and their local authorities will know who belongs and who doesn’t. Worker crossings will move to stations on the main streets (where they used to be). Workers will soon be known at the stations. More border guards will be available to watch for the real (now more exposed) criminals elsewhere along the borders. Reasonable application and renewal fees will help to support the new visas and their administration.
Too often, illegal residence has been mixed with Radical Islamic Terrorism. None of the 9/11 terrorists entered the country illegally. They all entered with legal visas. Some over-stayed their visas, but they entered legally. A few terrorists are crossing our borders. Some illegal residents have connections to radical Islam. None of them are ISIS. Most of the criminals are narcoterrorists … violent criminals connected to drug smuggling. Most of the noise linking illegal border crossings to terrorism is “blue smoke and mirrors“. We don’t import terrorists. We grow them.
I expect changing the law to be the most difficult part of dealing with our “immigration problem”. Congress has been talking about immigration reform for at least 20 years. Have you seen any new immigration laws in that time? Until Congress remembers that government is about compromise; not ideological entrenchment, we’re stuck. If they refuse to act, building walls … between countries and people …may be the only way to control our borders. At least, we know who to hire for that job.
Illegal residence has dropped in recent years … to a large extent because of the severe economic recession that began in the last year of the Bush Administration. We can thank two Presidents and a bickering Congress for creating parts of a damaged economy and maintaining a slow and unbalanced recovery. The 1% have done their part too. While corporate profits are way up, wages and lower-level salaries have barely moved.
We may be able to control our borders by force or by eliminating opportunity, but I’d prefer finding humane solutions, fixing our laws, and maintaining our still great country.
Those Who Remain
OK, after we get control of our borders and deport all the real criminals, what do we do with the illegal residents who remain? As I mentioned above, removing the criminals leaves us with an estimated 10.5 to 12.5 million illegal residents in the United States. There are divisions among the undocumented that may require different responses.
Some politicians, newsmakers, and other talking heads consider children born in the United States of undocumented parents to be undocumented as well. The Pew Research Center has estimated that, in 2013, 8% of all births in the country (about 295,000) had at least one undocumented parent. These children are not illegal residents. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says they are citizens by birthright. These “children” (some are probably adults by now) are no more subject to being deported than you and I. Their undocumented parents can be deported; they may choose to go with their deported parents; BUT, they have the same rights as any other U.S. citizen.
You may not like the 14th Amendment, but it’s the current “law of the land”. It could be superseded by the passage and ratification of a new amendment. Amending the Constitution is a rather long and somewhat complicated process, but it has been done. (There are 27 amendments to the Constitution … 17 beyond the Bill of Rights.) You could “take it to court” by a case designed to test the breadth of the 14th Amendment’s applicability. If you win, you can get rid of all birthright citizens … then, look into how to get rid of the next group you dislike. Depending where you are in the governmental hierarchy … like Congress or the President … you could ignore the 14th Amendment and let someone take you to court. Whatever you do, might open Pandora’s Box. Whatever’s done to any Constitutional Amendment could be done to your favorite Amendment … like the 1st … the base of our freedom … or the 2nd … so precious to many Nativists.
There’s a group of illegal residents whose problems are closely related to our citizens with undocumented parents. They are the subjects of the DREAM Act … the so called DREAMers. DREAM is an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors. The DREAMers are illegal residents who were brought here as children years and, in many cases, decades ago. They have grown up in the United States, have an American variant of English as their dominant language, have attended primary and secondary school (paid for by their parents’ property and other local taxes) in the United States, and may know no other home but the United States.
In one form or another, the DREAM Act has been submitted to both houses of Congress several times, but has never been passed into law. It’s unclear how many young people would be eligible for the benefits of the DREAM Act. One analysis suggests it might be 7 to 13 thousand; another estimates more than 2 million. The Act is not a path to citizenship, but to permanent resident status … the first step on the long road to citizenship. Being eligible is not easy. In the most recent version of the DREAM Act, to be eligible one must have arrived in the United States when 15 years old or younger, lived in the country for at least 5 years, be currently 29 or younger, and have:
- Graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED;
- Been a person of “good moral character”, as determined by the Department of Homeland Security, from the date the individual initially entered the U.S. (previous versions of the DREAM Act only required an individual to be a person of good moral character from the date of the bill’s enactment);
- Submitted biometric information;
- Undergone security and law-enforcement background checks;
- Undergone a medical examination; and
- Registered for the Selective Service.
An applicant can be excluded if that applicant:
- Has committed one felony or three misdemeanors;
- Is likely to become a public charge;
- Has engaged in voter fraud or unlawful voting;
- Has committed marriage fraud;
- Has abused a student visa;
- Has engaged in persecution; or
- Poses a public health risk.
In an alternate universe, these young people could be my grandchildren … or your children or grandchildren. In my less than humble opinion, the DREAM Act is more stringent than it should be, but … it’s a start. I hope that our next Congress will have the courage to pass it and the next President the decency to sign it.
Even if there are roughly 2 million DREAMers and they all qualify for the requirements of the DREAM Act, we’re left with 8.5 to 10.5 million illegal residents left in the country. What do we do with them? Migrant (and/or other) worker visas will cover some of them. Being generous in estimating (and to round the numbers), let’s say 2.5 million will be covered by some sort of worker visa. We’re still left with 6 to 8 million illegal residents.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (during the Reagan Administration) granted amnesty to an estimated 3.2 million illegal residents. Since that act did little to reduce illegal residence and nothing important was done to control our borders until 2012, some illegal residents who are here now must have been living in the United States for at least a quarter of a century. Surely some of them must have assimilated into our culture. You and I may be acquainted with one or more long-term illegal resident family without knowing it.
Most of these people live with one foot in the regular economy and the other in the shadow economy. Many (perhaps most) of them pay taxes. Most of them came here for economic opportunity and freedom. They can’t vote. They can’t take advantage of Social Security or Medicare. They can’t buy insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They move through their lives under the threat of deportation, but try to live productive, peaceful, and (other than their undocumented status) lawful lives.
As I’ve tried to make clear, the last time that stringent immigration laws should have existed was in 1492. The people living in the Bahamas at that time probably should have told Columbus to go home and never return. (Maybe they should have built some big boats for themselves and sailed east to discover … and conquer … Europe.) I believe that the only things immigration rules should do is filter out criminals and terrorists, protect public health, and control the flow so that processing is manageable. (If we can update the processing to 21st century standards, we can probably triple the quotas.) Unfortunately for the 6 to 8 million illegal residents who are neither criminals being deported or DREAMers trying to stay in and serve their “home”, I am in the minority.
Somewhere between right away and never, there must be a way for some of them to gain some sort of legal status without giving up what they have worked years to achieve. Here’s what I suggest as a potential compromise:
- Anyone who has lived, worked, paid taxes, stayed out of legal trouble unrelated to documentation, etc. in the United States for at least 10 years or more should be granted a visa to begin there permanent residency period. If they met all other requirements, but owed taxes, they would be given 6 months to pay those taxes before being accepted or rejected under this option. Those accepted would begin an additional 5 year residency period before they could apply for naturalized citizenship.
- Anyone who has lived, worked, paid taxes, stayed out of legal trouble unrelated to documentation, etc. in the United States for at least 5 years would need to “leave the country” (going to their home country’s embassy would be sufficient if their home country agreed) and obtain a 5 year visa that permitted them to live in the United States until they reached the 10 year point needed for option 1.
- Anyone who lived in the United States would be required to leave and “go to the end of the line” of people requesting immigration. If they refused to leave voluntarily, would be deported and suffer whatever penalties accompanied deportation.
This plan is a template. No doubt, it is missing a number of legal subtleties. I am neither a lawyer nor a politician. It is more stringent than I’d prefer and almost certainly to lenient for many.
One final point … in the long run, I share Gene Roddenberry‘s dream of a United Earth. Competing nations have been second only to competing religions as a source of fear and hatred among humans. If we are to reach our potential as a species we must learn that there are as many paths to the All That Is as there are individuals … and that nations are just lines on a map. I hope we reach that level of enlightenment before the 23rd Century. I’m not sure I can wait that long.
* The terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” are
…biased terms. The word “alien” has negative connotations of
…it’s own. (Consider the associations with the words “alienate”
…and “alienism“.) An “undocumented immigrant” sounds like
…a careless person who has lost her or his paperwork. I will use
…the term “illegal resident” as much as is possible.
Because the subject of this article is so controversial, I did a lot of research before and while composing it. I reviewed much more than I included. For the benefit of any readers who want to look at all of the information I checked, I’ve included my notes here. The notes are in no particular order. I have simply copied my note file (originally in Microsoft Notepad) into a Microsoft Word file and attached it to the article.