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Manhattan Institute

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Our Immigration Debate Is Older Than America Herself

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Our Immigration Debate Is Older Than America Herself

The Wall Street Journal February 7, 2018
OtherImmigration

Benjamin Franklin once wondered why Pennsylvania should ‘become a Colony of Aliens.’

The times may change but the immigration debate endures, with each wave of new arrivals smashing into variations of the same old arguments.

In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin was already complaining about the use of bilingual signposts in Pennsylvania to accommodate the swarthy hordes of German migrants. “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens,” wrote Franklin, “who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language and Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”

In the antebellum period, Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph and a leader of the Know Nothing movement, called for banning Irish Catholics, whom he accused of subverting America’s values and ideals. Talk of the “Yellow Peril” came next. In a famous political cartoon from 1881, Lady Liberty is depicted as a Chinese coolie gripping an opium pipe. Italians, Jews, Poles and others shortly thereafter would experience similar treatment.

In recent decades, the boisterous conversation surrounding immigrants from Latin America has addressed similar themes. Are they stealing jobs and depressing wages? Are they driving up crime rates and stretching our social services? Are they assimilating? How much unskilled foreign labor can our modern economy absorb?

Those questions are complicated by the fact that there is no typical immigrant. They aren’t all gang members, and they aren’t all microbiologists. Most are economic migrants in search of an opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Most are simply looking for a higher return on their human capital.

Open immigration entails costs as well as benefits. A border policy that acknowledges this isn’t racist, it’s realistic. The goal is to find the right balance of immigrants to meet the country’s economic needs. Yes, humanitarianism ought to inform this debate, but ultimately U.S. immigration policy should prioritize the needs of the people already here, not the people trying to come.

Franklin wasn’t being paranoid. Germans in colonial America had a reputation for sticking to themselves in German-speaking communities. During the Civil War, there were all-German units in the Union Army with commands given in German. Germans have left giant cultural footprints on the country as well; they introduced America to kindergarten and marching bands and Christmas trees. And German immigrants ultimately did overtake the English in numbers. Today, Americans of German ancestry outnumber any other ethnic group.

Of course, the major difference between yesteryear’s emigrating Europeans and Asians and today’s Latinos is that so many of the latter are here illegally. Some sneaked across the border. Some are “overstayers” who entered with visas and never left. Others—the so-called Dreamers—were brought in unlawfully as children. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies featured endless debates about how to address the growing undocumented population. Both administrations attempted large-scale comprehensive immigration reform but came up empty.

Mr. Trump has followed his predecessors with a grand gambit of his own. The immigration outline the White House sent to Congress last month provides additional funding for a border wall and creates a path to citizenship for around 1.8 million Dreamers. But some Democrats balked at the plan because it also called for scrapping the diversity visa program and tightening family migration, both of which could result in lower levels of legal immigration. The reforms, they argue, would change too much at once.

If Mr. Trump still wants a deal, he should go smaller. On Monday Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons unveiled legislation that offers a path to citizenship for the Dreamers and a path to funding for a wall. A companion bill in the House has 54 cosponsors, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The president initially criticized the Senate measure because it does not immediately authorize funding for the border wall. But there’s room for negotiation, and Mr. McCain likes to cut deals, too.

The president should not underestimate the willingness of Democrats to move his way on border security if he addresses their priorities. As Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez told CNN last month, “I think it would be a monumental waste of taxpayer money to build a monument to stupidity, but if that is what it is going to take to get 800,000 young men and women and give them a chance to live freely and openly in America, then I’ll roll up my sleeves, I’ll go down there with bricks and mortar and begin the wall.”

Incremental progress is better than none at all, and a smaller deal wouldn’t preclude further reforms at a later date. Neither side would get everything it wants this time around, but both sides would get something significant. In this environment, take what you can get.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal

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Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

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