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In Praise of Huddled Masses
Wall Street Journal, Jul 3, 1984
Amid the fireworks and picnics as this nation celebrates its independence tomorrow, we hope Americans stop to ask, what is the United States? The question is especially appropriate at this moment in the history of a nation of immigrants; upon returning from its July 4 recess Congress will try to finish work on the Simpson-Mazzoli bill.
The answer to the question is in the first words of our Constitution, "We, the people." It was the people, and especially new people, who worked this land into a New World. We hope today's gentlepeople, the descendants of the tired and poor who sought refuge on these shores, can still spare a thought for today's huddled masses, yearning to be free.
Simpson-Mazzoli, we are repeatedly told, is a carefully crafted compromise. It is in fact an anti-immigration bill. Note well that despite its grant of amnesty for aliens who have been residents long enough, its most outspoken opponents are the Hispanics, who would prefer to live with the present laws. Its constituency is an interesting and perhaps portentous alliance of the "nativist" Americans who still dominate Mountain States politics and the "Club of Rome" elitists of the Boston-Washington corridor.
We can hope that the bill will die in the House-Senate conference, which still must resolve such contentious differences as whether or not to have a program of temporary guest workers for agriculture. If it survives conference, President Reagan would be wise to veto it as antithetical to the national self-confidence his administration has done so much to renew.
If Washington still wants to "do something" about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders. Perhaps this policy is overly ambitious in today's world, but the U.S. became the world's envy by trumpeting precisely this kind of heresy. Our greatest heresy is that we believe in people as the great resource of our land. Those who would live in freedom have voted over the centuries with their feet. Wherever the state abused its people, beginning with the Puritan pilgrims and continuing today in places like Ho Chi Minh City and Managua, they've aimed for our shores. They—we—have astonished the world with the country's success.
The nativist patriots scream for "control of the borders." It is nonsense to believe that this unenforceable legislation will provide any such thing. Does anyone want to "control the borders" at the moral expense of a 2,000-mile Berlin Wall with minefields, dogs and machine-gun towers? Those who mouth this slogan forget what America means. They want those of us already safely ensconced to erect giant signs warning: Keep Out, Private Property.
The instinct is seconded by the "zero-sum" mentality that has been intellectually faddish this past decade. More people, the worry runs, will lead to overcrowding; will use up all our "resources," and will cause unemployment. Trembling no-growthers cry that we'll never "feed," "house" or "clothe" all the immigrants—though the immigrants want to feed, house and clothe themselves. In fact, people are the great resource, and so long as we keep our economy free, more people means more growth, the more the merrier. Somehow the Reagan administration at least momentarily adopted the cramped Club-of-Rome vision, forgetting which side of this debate it is supposed to support. Ronald Reagan, we thought, marched to different bywords—"growth," for example, and "opportunity."
If anyone doubts that the immigration and growth issue touches the fundamental character of a nation, he should look to recent experience in Europe. Some European governments are taken in by the no-growth nonsense that economic pies no longer grow, and must be sliced. They are actually paying immigrants and guest workers to go home: the Germans pay Turks, the French pay North Africans, the British pay West Indians and Asians. It was this dour view of people as liabilities, not assets, that led to the great European emigration to the U.S. in the first place. Meanwhile, Europe today settles into long-term unemployment for millions while the U.S. economy is booming with new jobs.
The same underlying difference in vision applies in political ideals. The individual is the lightning rod of 20th-century politics. The totalitarians of the Communist Bloc don't allow their people to leave. The foremost use of the machinery of the state is to wall in the citizens. If we cannot change their regimes, the least we can do is to offer refuge to those of their peoples with the opportunity and courage to arrive here. To do otherwise is to say that the ideals upon which this Republic was founded are spent, that what is left is to negotiate the terms of surrender.
America, above all, is a nation founded upon optimism. The Republic will prosper so long as it does not disavow this taproot. The issue is not what we offer the teeming masses, but what they offer us: their hands, their minds, their spirit, and above all the chance to be true to our own past and our own future.