WASHINGTON — In 1790, the finest mind in the First Congress, and of his generation, addressed in the House of Representatives the immigration issue: “It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us.” Perhaps today’s 115th Congress will resume the Sisyphean task of continuing one of America’s oldest debates, in which James Madison was an early participant: By what criteria should we decide who is worthy to come amongst us?
The antecedents of the pronouns “we” and “us” include the almost 80 million who are either immigrants — not excluding the more than 11 million undocumented ones — or their children. They might be amused to learn that in the only full-length book Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he worried that too many immigrants might be coming from Europe with monarchical principles “imbibed in their early youth,” ideas that might turn America into “a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”
A century later, Theodore Roosevelt, who detested “milk-and-water cosmopolitanism,” saw virtue emerging from struggles between the “Anglo-Saxon” race and what Roosevelt’s friend and soulmate Rudyard Kipling called “lesser breeds without the law.” TR, who worried that the United States was becoming a “polyglot boarding house,” supported America’s first significant legislation restricting immigration, passed to exclude Chinese, because he thought Chinese laborers would depress American wages, and because he believed they would be “ruinous to the white race.”
In 1902, in the final volume of professor Woodrow Wilson’s widely-read book “A History of the American People,” he contrasted “the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe” — e.g., Norwegians — with southern and eastern Europeans who had “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” U.S. Army data gathered during World War I mobilization demonstrated, according to a Princeton psychologist, “the intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Mediterranean, Alpine and Negro groups.” Richard T. Ely, a leading progressive economist, spent most of his academic career at the University of Wisconsin, but first taught at Johns Hopkins, where one of his students was Woodrow Wilson. Ely celebrated the Army data for enabling the nation to inventory its human stock just as it does its livestock. In 1924, Congress legislated severe immigration restrictions, which excluded immigrants from an “Asiatic Barred Zone.”
For more on this unsavory subject, read “Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era,” by Princeton economist Thomas C. Leonard. And “One Nation Undecided” by Peter H. Schuck, professor emeritus at Yale Law School, who writes: “In what may be the cruelest single action in our immigration history, Congress defeated a bill in 1939 to rescue 20,000 children from Nazi Germany despite American families’ eagerness to sponsor them — on the ground that the children would exceed Germany’s quota!”
The next phase of America’s immigration debate, like the previous one, will generate the most heat about border security and whether those who are here illegally should stay. The heat will be disproportionate.
The border was irrelevant to the 42 percent of illegal immigrants who entered the U.S., mostly at airports, with valid visas that they then overstayed. Spending on border security quadrupled in the 1990s, then tripled in the next decade. Now that net immigration of Mexicans has been negative for ten years, Americans eager to build a wall should not build it on the 1,984-mile U.S.-Mexico border but on the 541-mile Mexico-Guatemala border.
Fifty-eight percent of the more than 11 million — down from 12.2 million in 2007 — who are here illegally have been here at least 10 years; 31 percent are homeowners; 33 percent have children who, having been born here, are citizens. The nation would recoil from the police measures that would be necessary to extract these people from the communities into the fabric of which their lives are woven. They are not going home; they are home.
After 9/11, attitudes about immigration became entangled with policies about terrorism. So, as The Economist noted, “a mass murder committed by mostly Saudi terrorists resulted in an almost limitless amount of money being made available for the deportation of Mexican house-painters.” This month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided 98 7-Eleven stores in 17 states, making 21 arrests, approximately one for every 4.5 stores. Rome was not built in a day and it would be unreasonable to expect the government to guarantee, in one fell swoop, that only American citizens will hold jobs dispensing Slurpees and Big Gulps.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com .