California Gov. Pete Wilson officially declared his presidential candidacy with the Statue of Liberty in the background, then he hopped a ferry for Ellis Island. He talked about his Irish grand mother, Kate Barton Callahan, and how she'd cleaned hotel rooms to support her daughter after her husband, a Chicago cop, was killed in the line of duty.
"Like millions of Americans, she toiled and sacrificed in the hope that her child, and her child's children, would have better lives. We have. I have been privileged to live the American Dream," he said.
By tying his 1994 reelection campaign to Proposition 187, Wilson became a symbol of anti -immigrant sentiment. But he's now a moderate in an increasingly immoderate debate. As Congress seriously considers slashing legal immigration levels by at least a third and Pat Buchanan routinely refers to immigration as "invasion," Wilson continues to draw the legal-illegal distinction sharply: "There's a right way to come to America and a wrong way," he said in New York, echoing his gubernatorial commercials. "Illegal immigration is not the American way."
A lot of elected officials are desperately trying to maintain the same distinction, lauding legal immigrants as good and illegal immigrants as evil, conferring on legal entry the sanction not merely of law but of history and tradition while denouncing illegal border crossing as tantamount to an attack on the United States. In a climate in which saying anything good about any post-1965 immi grantespecially any nonwhite post-1965 immigrantgenerates hate mail, declaring legal immigra tion the "right way" borders on bravery.
But history is not as simple, nor immigration law as just, as Wilson suggests. Before accepting a crackdown that restricts the liberties of all Americans, both voters and political officials could use an immigration refresher course.
The fundamental fact of immigration control is that it defies human nature and market forces. It draws a line between willing buyers and willing sellers and enforces that line with guns. It tells workers they must stay where there is no work, seekers of liberty they must endure dictatorship, parents they cannot seek a better life for their children. It is like wage and price controls, taxi medal lions, vice laws, rent control, and every other attempt to interpose state power between consenting adults. It creates black markets, corrupts law enforcement, encourages contempt for the law, and, at best, works only imperfectly.
Contrary to the suggestions of anti-immigration polemicists, free migration is not a diabolical plot by elites but the natural state of the world. Closed, or even partially closed, borders are the compromise. It is their advocates who bear the burden of justifying an inherently arbitrary policy.
And U.S. immigration policy is nothing if not arbitrary. On that both pro- and anti-immigrant forces can agree.
Current policy favors family members of citizens and legal residents; if you're from the wrong family, you'll never cross the border legally, no matter how much you believe in the American way. Unless, that is, you happen to have special skills or advanced degrees. Or you get lucky in the "di versity" lottery that gives out 40,000 green cards a year to people from countries that otherwise send few legal immigrants (with 40 percent reserved for the Irish). Or you're the Amerasian child of a U.S. serviceman. Or you have big bucks to invest. If you have a "well-founded fear of persecution," you can get refugee status, but chances are you'll first have to cross the border illegally, or come in as a tourist or student.
In other words, Ellis Island is a historical monument, not a symbol of today's legal immigra tion. "The American way" has become a lot more bureaucratic since Katie Barton's day.
Back then, any able-bodied non-Chinese adultafter 1917, any able-bodied non-Chinese adult who could read at least one languagecould come to America. The Progressives ended that form of near laissez-faire, as they ended so many othersand on similar grounds. State planners, they argued, knew best how to engineer American social development. Federal regulation, not individual choices, should determine the country's ethnic and cultural makeup.
"In political life, liberty meant until recently the minimum of control necessary to secure equal opportunity," proclaimed Progressive social worker and anti-immigration campaigner Joseph Lee. "We have begun to realize the control of man over nature, and to see that the highest results come from the collective effort consciously directed to an end.These considerations have a direct bear ing upon the question of immigration regulation."
Backed by a State Department report warning that an unprecedented number of "filthy" and "unassimilable" Jews were fleeing persecution in Europe, and by other "scientific" findings, Con gress passed a temporary quota act in 1921 and a permanent one in 1924. It translated into law the notion, articulated by influential Cornell economist Jeremiah Jenks, that immigration policy should shift from "an individualistic basis" to one based on "racial characteristics."
Rather than looking at each immigrant to make sure he or she posed no threat to public health and wasn't likely to become a public charge, the United States would lump immigrants together by ethnic group, deeming some collectives worthy and others not. "Most of us are proud of being Anglo Saxons," said Jenks, suggesting that British immigrants "must be particularly good." (The same collectivist impulse exists today; anti-immigrant campaigners love to cite statistics showing that this ethnic group is more likely to go on welfare, or have fewer years of schooling, or earn less, or have lower IQs than that one, especially if the latter group is Northern European. And wildly atypical cases, particularly the Hmong, are used to stand for entire continents of origin.)
Even in the nativist 1920s, however, the United States did not close its Southern border. Until 1965, there was no numerical limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere.