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.