Two weeks ago, President Obama said he would act alone, if necessary, to alter immigration policy. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, for one, reacted enthusiastically, suggesting the president might “borrow” the Congressional power necessary to get it done.
But last week, the president suggested (while fundraising in Dallas) that nothing could be done about the current border crisis without the House acting to approve his plans for “comprehensive immigration reform”—and an immediate $3.7 billion down payment to stem the current crisis.
The president, in other words, is willing to do Congress’s job (rewrite the law) but not his own (enforce the ones already on the books). And why not? The point in all this is to use whatever means available to pass his bill—presented as always, as a simple distillation of common sense and provisions for fair dealing that none but the wicked and ignorant could oppose.
Who Cares About A Few Broken Immigrants
Ignoring the Constitution’s division of powers and leveraging the suffering of thousands of Latin American children for political gain are simply the broken eggs necessary to make this Progressive omelet, a much less healthy meal than a ladle of soup from the old-fashioned melting pot. The most important and least healthy ingredient of the Progressive omelet is large-scale government dependency, the natural result of an ever-expanding set of welfare state benefits, increasingly available to legal and illegal immigrants alike.
Predictably, our present debate (like so many others) focuses mostly on material considerations: the economic costs (for the unemployed or less-skilled American worker) and benefits (for tech firms, manufacturers, agribusinesses, and the like) of immigration reform and its probable fiscal impact. But there is a deeper question in view that helps to explain the president’s urgency in passing the bill. Rhetorical pretense aside, he knows that immigration policy is a political question of the highest order, ultimately defining the citizenry and, thereby, the electorate of the nation, its political culture, and its trajectory.
In short: you get the immigrants—and the nation—you ask for. The president’s words, (in)actions, and policies have sent a message, drawing tens of thousands of unaccompanied children to our southern border. If and when the message changes, the crisis will end.
Consider the Previous Immigration Message
Consider the effort of one eminent early American when misinformation suggested to would-be European immigrants that the United States might be just the place for distressed aristocrats seeking a government sinecure. In his essay, “Information to Those who would Remove to America,” Benjamin Franklin tried to correct the record:
With regard to Encouragements for Strangers from Government, they are really only what are derived from good Laws and Liberty. Strangers are welcome, because there is room enough for them all, and therefore the old Inhabitants are not jealous of them; the Laws protect them sufficiently, so that they have no need of the Patronage of Great Men; and every one will enjoy securely the Profits of his Industry. But, if he does not bring a Fortune with him, he must work and be industrious to live.
What inducement did 1784 America offer to would-be immigrants? “Good Laws and Liberty.” Not much to live on if you weren’t willing to “work and be industrious”; and that was all the distressed aristocrats needed to hear. This was not the place for them.
For tens of millions of others, however, that was just the deal they were looking for. As Alexis de Tocqueville notes, an important ingredient to the American success story was the physical configuration of North America that made it the ideal landing spot for those willing to mix their labor with a challenging yet rewarding natural environment. And springing from this great partnership of human effort and natural bounty was perhaps the greatest agricultural, industrial, and now high-tech economy in human history. The “tired…poor…huddled masses yearning to breathe free” became the prosperous, self-governing citizens of a great republic.
America maintained much of its original political culture during the 19th century, despite successive waves of immigration unprecedented in world history, in part by continuing to attract people who already embraced it. Unfortunately, her own laws unjustly prevented others who might have done likewise from coming to America by defining “undesirable” immigrants partially in ethnic terms (excluding all non-whites until 1870 and some Asians well into the 20th century, among other restrictions).
A mix of prejudice, self-serving jealousy, and sometimes more noble (if misguided) concerns compromised, in practice, the basic principle that otherwise served America so well into the 20th century: “equal rights for all, and special privileges for none”—all the more so because immigrants attracted by it are likely to be industrious in their pursuit of happiness, and thus less likely to give a native citizen any reasonable cause for jealousy.
While imperfectly implemented, the consistency of America’s “good Laws and Liberty” immigration policy across the first century of American national political history is aptly symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, who holds high the lamp of liberty while clutching the tablet of the law close to her chest.
Good Laws vs. Dependency
“Federalist 52,” the first of seven essays on the House of Representatives, suggests the critical importance of such a policy in a republican government. James Madison opens the series with a defense of the Constitution’s requirements for the body’s electors and elected, and a preliminary discussion of the role that the Congress is to play in American government
The Constitution maximized voter participation in House elections within the cultural boundaries of the day by enfranchising all those eligible to vote for the members of the “most numerous” branch of each state legislature. Its minimal requirements to be a member of the House gave the widest possible scope for merit to define the membership of that body. Why?
Madison’s most important claim in “Federalist 52″ suggests the answer:
As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.
Madison’s argument (here and, one might say, throughout The Federalist Papers) presupposes a people eager to protect liberty, then, within the constraints of human nature, seeks the best way to accomplish this. That means ensuring that government leaders cannot violate the liberty of the people without violating their own—and it means, in this context, ensuring that, through “frequent elections,” members of the House have “an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.”
Thus the Constitution’s provisions for the House of Representatives are perfectly suited for the people Madison was writing for and whom Franklin’s contemporaneous essay hoped to attract. The broadest suffrage on earth let (most of) the people guard their own liberty, and the minimal requirements for members of the House meant they were free to choose the best deputies to aid them in the task—without whose approval no law could be passed and without whose initiative no tax bill even proposed.
Today, however, instead of an immigration policy of good laws and liberty, we have one of flexible “laws” and dependency—perfectly suited for the president’s Progressive vision (and his party’s quest for a permanent majority), but not our founders’ republican one.
The liberty-loving are not defined by ethnicity, as our older policy supposed, but neither is everyone equally liberty-loving, as is often assumed by many a Progressive thinker today.
A new approach to immigration, no doubt, is needed, but it will be inadequate so long as we continue to project a Progressive message at home and abroad. Without comprehensive reform at the ballot box and that reins in dependency and promotes a culture of individual, familial, and civic responsibility, we will become, in the spirit of Emma Lazarus’s poem, more tired and poor, unable to welcome others to our shore, the political tempest at home having dimmed our lamp of liberty, and shut our golden door.