An Immigrant Thanksgiving

New arrivals make America a better place to live and work.


An elderly relative of mine recently let me in on what she described as a family secret: her housepainter father, she said, could never get a steady indoor job here in America because he didn't have proper working papers.

I knew about my grandfather on one side of the family who had arrived at Ellis Island in the 1920s and served in the navy in World War II. But the possibility that one of my great-grandparents on the other side was an illegal immigrant brought a smile to the face of this columnist, an Eagle Scout Harvard graduate and the author of biographies of Samuel Adams and John F. Kennedy.

For if those ancestors of mine hadn't made it here, legally or illegally, the odds are they'd have been killed either by the Nazis or the Soviet Communists, and I wouldn't even exist, let alone be writing books on American history or opining on American immigration policy. My reaction to the disclosure wasn't shame or embarrassment, but relief: thank God they got in before it was too late.

So much of the reaction to President Obama's immigration announcement has centered on the timing in relation to elections. Six years since he was elected, he finally acted. After the mid-term election, he acted. To me, though, the more relevant timing is the proximity to Thanksgiving, the holiday on which we remember an earlier group of immigrants to America who were fleeing religious persecution, and a day on which we take special care to give thanks for this land and its freedom.

Each generation has its own challenges, and I don't want to suggest that the forces driving immigrants to America today are the same as 20th Century fascism, communism, or anti-Semitism. In assessing the motives for migration, it's often hard to disaggregate the push of persecution from the pulls of economic, political, and religious freedom.

Some conservatives fret about the crime associated with new immigrants. That is reason for robust law enforcement, which would be a good idea even in the absence of immigration.

Some conservatives fret about the costs of welfare and entitlements for the new immigrants. That is reason for reform of the welfare and entitlement programs, which is needed even in the absence of immigration.

Some conservatives fret about the threat of infiltration by terrorist immigrants. That is reason for a robust counterterrorism policy, both at home and abroad, which is needed even in the absence of immigrants.

Some conservatives—and even some liberals—express concern that immigration will depress the wages of low-skill American workers. That is reason for those workers to improve their skills, which is something they probably need to do anyway, not because of competition from immigrants but because of competition from robots, software, and workers overseas.

Some conservatives fret about the erosion of the respect for the rule of law that results from allowing immigration law to go unenforced. That is reason to consider revising the law.

Also serious is the concern that President Obama is ignoring Congress and essentially rewriting immigration law on his own in a way not permitted by the Constitution. Congress can deal with this by asserting its own constitutional power over federal expenditures (notwithstanding the bogus argument that immigration enforcement is funded not by taxes but by fees). But this president is taking a wide view of executive powers in respect of national security policy and health care policy, too. If conservatives want to challenge him, it's not clear why they'd prioritize immigration over the other issues. And they may want to keep in mind that some day the roles may be reversed, and it may be a conservative president facing a Democratic Congress on these issues of executive power.

Some conservatives worry that the immigrants won't assimilate into American culture. This is a serious concern. Perhaps it could be addressed by making sure that the immigrants and their children are all taught the music and lyrics to "God Bless America," written by an immigrant to America named Irving Berlin.

If you don't know the lyrics, you can find them by looking on Google, the search engine founded by an immigrant to America named Sergey Brin.


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  1. “For if those ancestors of mine hadn’t made it here, legally or illegally, the odds are they’d have been killed either by the Nazis or the Soviet Communists,…”

    Does this count as a Godwin infraction?

    1. Oh, and I’m glad your family didn’t get whacked in Europe during the 20th century, Ira.

    2. Couldn’t tell you that. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t count as a problem.

    3. Since he is referring to literal Nazis in a situation where they would actually apply (versus comparing someone to Nazis), Godwin’s does not apply.

  2. Jeez – sounds to me like your ancestors should have stayed where they came from and fixed the problems int *those* countries rather than coming here and breaking the law (breakin’thelaw!breakin’thelaw!).

    1. You don’t know what it’s like!

    2. The answer should be to make the law easier to comply with.

      Quite a few soldiers I knew in Vietnam were immigrants who volunteered for military service because it made applying for citizenship easier. They assured me it was much easier to fight the Viet Cong than the INS.

      1. But that’s not allowed until all the people currently breaking the law (breakin’thelaw!breakin’thelaw!) leave the country.

        *Then* we get to talk about increasing the number of unskilled work visas above 10,000/yr.

        1. But that’s not allowed until all the people currently breaking the law (breakin’thelaw!breakin’thelaw!) leave the country.

          You don’t know what it’s like: you don’t have a clue.
          If you did you’d find yourself doing the same thing too!

      2. I think you’ve stumbled upon the solution.

        Clearly, the answer to our immigration problems is more Vietnams.

  3. I am amazed that there is not a single article skeptical of mass immigration among the many written on the topic since last week.
    I’ll ask again of my fellow libertarians. Make a list of the top issues that matter to you. Now choose which of those we are going to be able to move closer to with a constant stream of third world immigrants.

    1. Well, you certainly don’t move closer to respect for property rights by denying property rights to not only those people who happened to have been born south of the river, but also those of the US citizens who wish to trade/employ those people.

      1. The problem is not that they just happen to be from below a river. It’s that they happened to knowingly come across that river illegally. They can have all of their property… on their side of the river.
        Milton Friedman knew open borders can’t exist with a welfare state. Ron Paul knew that birthright citizenship should not exist. That being the case I find it strange that Reason magazine does not have a single writer who agrees that this needs to be stopped.

        1. The problem is not that they just happen to be from below a river. It’s that they happened to knowingly come across that river illegally.

          Are you sure you know what Milton Friedman knew?

          Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal. That’s an interesting paradox to think about. Make it legal and it’s no good. Why? Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for social security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket. So long as they don’t qualify they migrate to jobs. They take jobs that most residents of this country are unwilling to take. They provide employers with the kind of workers that they cannot get. They’re hard workers, they’re good workers, and they are clearly better off.

          1. A decade ago, Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman admonished the Wall Street Journal for its id?e fixe on open-border immigration policy. “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state,” he warned.

    2. Maybe the immigrants come, bankrupt the welfare state which would take fiat currency with it, forcing the government to end or drastically reduce the welfare state and allow for competing currencies effectively nullifying the FED and the never ending deficit spending fueled govt largess in the process.

      1. Which would effectively make the USA Honduras del Norte. Not a fan of this plan. Much prefer to have the existing American voting stock vote for an audit, which they would. Seems smoother.

    3. Now choose which of those we are going to be able to move closer to with a constant stream of third world immigrants.

      As opposed to the rapid progress the libertarian party has made with the current batch of citizens?

      If you want to look at the political reality, then the libertarian party’s track record suggests were screwed already. I’m still up for sticking with my principles rather than political likelihoods, since what’s politically likely will go on being politically likely regardless of what I say or do.

      I’ll leave it to others to ignore their principles under the fantasy that they’re striking some compromise with people without principles. As if your compromise vote counts for so much, really.

      1. The Libertarian Party is more or less useless. The Paul’s have it right, the change has to be done slowly within the system.

        It is not a fantasy to say that I don’t want the tax code written by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. These are actual people with actual voting records.

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