I wrote this paper for Political Life 1110
Should America Close the Golden Door? America has, is, and will always be a nation of immigrants: the great melting pot. In the years that have passed since Emma Lazarus poem was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty the golden door has seen times when it was open wide and times when it was closed shut to almost all immigrants. Many people tend to look at the present immigration problems as a purely modern dilemma. The truth is America has always struggled with the issue of immigration, both legal and illegal. Changing times however make it imperative that our government re-examine and adjust todays immigration laws to todays standards. Those standards however are not easily defined. All too often the issue of immigration is used as a political tool or is lost in heated moral debates. In any discussion about immigration you will have those who claim it is good for our nation and those who claim it is ruining the nation. More often than not the bottom line in any debate of this sort is money; will more or less immigration mean more or less money for those already in America. The moral debates come down to a question of who we are as a nation and how we want the rest of the world to perceive Americans. If this great country was forged and built by immigrants passing through the golden door , then how can this same country turn away new immigrants. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty invites all to enter, yet not all are allowed to enter. Immigration has become a selective process with many gray areas. Now Americans are faced with a new dilemma; the nation must decide not whether it is willing to accept new immigrants, but whether it can afford new immigrants. All new immigrant, both legal and illegal must be considered in this equation. Congress can attempt to ease the burden of legal immigration by passing restrictive laws and only allowing in those who they believe will become self-sufficient. Congress must also find a way to slow the flow of illegal immigration by enforcing the laws already in place. What this paper will attempt to do is bring the immigration issue into perspective. America most certainly has immigration problems but they will not be fixed by eliminating immigration all together. In fact, America will never totally eliminate immigration, because no matter how tightly the door is closed some illegal immigrants will get through. As long as America continues to be seen as a nation of prosperity, opportunity, and freedom there will be those who wish to come to America. Immigrants have always come to America looking for a better life and Americans are always forgetting that their forefathers were once looking for that same life. As a nation there must be a decision on whether immigration is an issue of conscience or economics. History of Immigration Laws Though most Americans see immigration as a modern problem it has been heavily debated since the 19th century. Throughout most of Americas history immigration was seen as a natural process that benefited the nation (Divine 2). Until the 1890s there were no clearly defined policies on immigration. During this time the country started questioning the economic benefits of more immigrants, so things have note changed in that respect. In May 1921, the first bill in American history restricted European immigration and created the quota system (Divine 5). This turn toward restriction could be justified by the downward turn in the economy. Who could argue for more immigrants when the nations own citizens couldnt find work. The slowing economy and the spirit of intense nationalism in the United States at this time made immigration a hot topic (Divine 23). After the depression hit everyone was in agreement that there was a need to limit immigration, of course the extent of those limits were not easily agreed upon (Divine 77). World War II brought with it a new set of immigrants, and eventually the passing of the Displaced Persons Act of 1947. This allowed immigrants, displaced by the war to enter the country above quota limits (Divine 128). Since then our legislators have been faced with numerous proposals concerning immigration, too many in fact to mention. Those mentioned above are significant in the fact that they show a definite shift in Americas attitude toward immigration. Since the 1920s immigration has not been seen as a natural process, but a process that could overwhelm a nation if left unchecked. Current Immigration Laws and Issues As of this time there are no less than fifty proposed bills in Congress that can affect immigration, which proves that this is an ongoing battle with little chance of ending. In recent years the immigration policy has found itself in a state of flux; going back and forth between pro and anti immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 is one of the more current policies to regulate immigration. This policy sets a flexible annual limit on immigration at a rate of 700,000 immigrants per year until 1994 when the number will drop to 675,000. This number of course does not include refugees and those seeking asylum (Immigration…). If these numbers seem staggering one must take into account the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants added to the nations population each year (Suro 8). In the mid-90s there was a shift in Americas immigration policy to close the doors and end the current era of immigration (Suro 8). In fact in President Clintons 1995 State of the Union Message he said: It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it. (Immigration…) This attitude led to the Immigration Enforcement Improvements Act of 1995, which was meant to secure our borders, make deportation of illegal easier, and discourage the employment of illegal aliens (Immigration…). In essence this was a proposal to enforce the laws already in place. This was a strong attempt by the government to limit illegal immigration while facilitating legal immigration. As of now, due to the lack of credible data, it is unclear if this legislation worked. What is clear is the continuing struggle to find a balance in the immigration system. Many citizens are concerned with such issues as overpopulation, lack of jobs, and the cost to tax payers if this mass wave of legal and illegal immigrants continues (Castro 198). Concerns America has established such an inherent open heart/open door policy that it seems the melting pot may be about to boil over. Some estimates put the United States population over capacity by as much as one-hundred million (Amselle 60). Americas lax attitude toward overpopulation may have turned to one of danger that must be avoided (Amselle 60). In the past immigration was somewhat balanced; a good economy meant more immigrants and a slower economy saw a decrease in immigration (Amselle 60). There are those who feel the United States has absorbed all the people it can (Amselle 60). Then you have those like Joel Kotkin of the Progressive Policy Institute who feel that the large numbers of immigrants are working age adults, that America needs to offset the growing number of pensioners (Amselle 60). Even if the immigrant population can offset the number of pensioners, the number of resources in the country will still be divide amongst a much larger population. One must also take into account the number of illegal immigrants added to the population. They will also be replacing those retiring pensioners at a lower wage with no taxes or social security payments. America has a large population of baby boomers and will need working-age persons to fill the void left by their retirements, but there must be a limit to the number of immigrants we become dependant upon and a dramatic decrease in illegal immigrants. During the 1980s when all other industrialized nations were making restrictions on immigration Americas doors were open and now the nation begins the daunting task of closing those doors (Briggs 5). There is some concern that closing the doors could heighten the feeling that the nation is under siege (Suro 15). Overpopulation is in itself a world wide issue but is not undisputed as a cause for concern in America. A lack of jobs is a major concern for most. Will there be enough jobs for everyone? Can our economy support its own citizens, immigrants, and illegal aliens. America is experiencing a period of economic health, but history shows that this upward economy will not last indefinitely. The working poor are concerned that illegal immigrants may be holding down wages and taking the few unskilled jobs that are available in some areas (Kirschten 16). These are legitimate fears that call into question the governments ability to regulate immigration. Tax paying citizens are also concerned that the tax dollars they pay each year are being used to help educate illegal immigrants and not those who are rightfully in this country (Amselle 60). When there is a large population of immigrants in an area citizens tend to view them in a hostile manner because of the perceived notion that illegal immigrants are using resource meant for legal residents (Bean 204). In reality illegal immigrants have never been eligible for welfare and other public services (Castro 180). Benefits of Immigration Immigrants help to relieve our nations labor shortage. The truth is that due to a decline in the fertility rate in the United States some leading demographers predict that without substantial immigration America will have a shrinking population (Briggs 127). A shrinking population would mean a higher cost of living and a slow decline in the economy. This alone does not diffuse the alarm of overpopulation but it does give a different view of the situation. Take into account the agricultural sector of American society which is heavily dependant upon immigrant workers, because non-immigrants are less willing to work on the farms (Mont 12). In terms of legal immigrants, America must find a way to make immigration work for the good of the nation as well as the best interest of the immigrants (Briggs 240). In the end a young immigrant population may very well save such programs as social security by increasing the number of workers in the market (Mont 18). These are all economic benefits, but the diversity the United States gains is a priceless commodity that future generations of Americans will need to succeed in a growing international job market. The Cost of Immigration The United States immigration policy does not allow people to immigrate if they are expected to be dependant on public services. Yet in 1993 approximately 12% of the 5.9 million recipients of Supplemental Security Income benefits were immigrants, even though they only account for about 5% of the population (Mont 15). Statistics such as these add to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment among American citizens. This anti-immigrant attitude was clearly reflected in 1994 with the passing of Californias Proposition 187. Actions such as Proposition 187 can create a very hostile and possibly dangerous atmosphere for all immigrants. What it really boils down to is a belief among Americans that immigrants simply cost too much. Immigration means increased job competition, more money spent on welfare, and increased competition for educational funding. Although Proposition 187 was aimed at curbing the health care cost of illegal immigrants, most Americans simply see it as an immigrant issue and pay little attention to details concerning the status of those immigrants actually receiving benefits. Many believe that immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, hold down wages in low paying jobs. Especially in areas such as Californias Central Valley where most of the workers are immigrant and up to 40% are believed to be illegal (Kirschten 16). Illegal Immigration The main concern with illegal immigration is the strain it can place upon the economy. There are also concerns about the nations sovereignty, if America cant control its borders then America may not be perceived as a sovereign nation (Mont 16). Illegal immigration is not only bad for the nation, but for the illegal immigrant as well. The fact that illegal workers have no recourse in the law makes them susceptible to unscrupulous business people who will exploit them simply to make money. The supply of illegal workers has created a part of the United States business economy that works outside of government regulations (Suro 34). Illegal immigrants face lower wages, unsafe work environments, and a lack of benefits. This in turn keeps wages low and makes it difficult for legal residents to get these jobs. Most employers are looking at the bottom line and illegal immigrant workers mean less wages and benefits cost, which add up to more profit. The government of course passed laws in 1986 making it unlawful to hire illegal immigrants; then they failed to fund the enforcement of these same laws (Suro 32). In reality illegal aliens make up less than 2% of the population, but what seems like an insignificant number of people has had great impact on our nation (Suro 50). The irony of the entire situation is that while the nation is calling for an end to illegal immigration, no one is forcing illegal immigrants to leave (Suro 35). While illegal aliens violate the law with their presence, we guarantee their children access to public education and emergency medical care (Suro 35). This is just one example of the many contradictions in Americas immigration policies. These contradictions are what lead to the frustration many people feel toward a system that is no longer in control. Many citizens, especially the working poor, feel that illegal immigrants sometimes receive more benefits. The reality of illegal immigration is that it has been an increasingly difficult problem to solve. For three decades now our government has been trying to find ways to alleviate the number of illegal immigrants in the nation. One attempt was the Amnesty program in the mid-90s for those who had been in the country since 1992 (Suro 40). Suro states that this covered only about 60% of the illegal population and drew much debate from California. Which is ironic seeing as how California is often at the forefront of the campaign against illegal immigration. Illegal immigration has become a familiar part of American society and will not likely see much improvement in the next millenium. The Future of Immigration INS has published a booklet called Strategic Plan: INS 200, Accepting the Challenge, which outlines their mission and objectives for the coming year. Most of these objectives are the same as they have always been: facilitate compliance with the law, create disincentives in the workplace, increase the security of INS documentation, and work with other agencies (U.S. Immigration…). This isnt the first time the INS has had good objectives, but it isnt likely that they will receive the necessary funding to implement these plans successfully. Our government has tried to curb the flow of illegal immigrants with such actions as the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA, which is expected to reduce illegal migration from Mexico (U.S. Immigration… 5). The problem is the timing of such policies; NAFTA is expected to work only after a decade in which Mexico can produce the jobs needed. The INS also reports that by the year 2000, the population of prime labor age in America will drop by 8.5 million. That is a large loss of labor and can only be offset by the immigrant population. The key is to make sure that this decrease is offset by a legal immigrant population. That is what the government attempted to do with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (Marley 880). The intent was to cut back on crime, terrorism, and welfare fraud. They fell short of their intent because the inadvertently clumped all immigrants together, both legal and illegal (Marley 885). America will continue to allow immigrants to enter the country for numerous reasons; such as those who take up a common cause against a foreign foe, as a gesture of shame after some foreign debacle, for economic reasons, and for purely humanitarian purposes (United States). recently we saw our government agree to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees, and financially help with 20,000 more in Albania. Now 20,000 is a tiny gesture in the big picture, but in a world of crises how many times can our government afford such gestures. Can America continue to play the role of the last true hope for the huddled masses of the world? Conclusion Illegal immigration must be curbed. If nothing else it is unfair to those who wait for years to come to America legally. Currently illegal immigrants can choose to leave on their own meaning they can come back legally if they choose. Our laws say that we can formally deport these illegal immigrants and bar them from legal entry. Why does our government continue to create loopholes in the laws they pass. I dont feel that those enter the country illegally should have a right to return; if they are willing to break immigration laws they are more likely to break other laws. What does this policy say to those who lawfully await entry? That in America youre only guilty if youre caught and then only if you dont agree to leave quietly. The lack of punishment for illegal migration is one of the reasons behind its increase. That however is just my opinion and the would not disappear even if strict punishments were the norm. It is clear that the debate and controversy over immigration will not go away anytime in the near future. What is not clear however is how the nation will fare in the midst of such debate. In the past Americans were proud to be that one shining hope in the world. They were willing to accept the tired and poor, but America has changed and immigration must change also. To those in underdeveloped countries the Statue of Liberty and her invitation to a better life must be hard to resist. What they dont see is what lies beyond her golden torch; a country teeming with people in fierce competition for that elusive dream of a better life. As a student of history and someone who is proud of my heritage I want to say let them come. Let all who need a better life come to America and try to build it here. As a realist I know that our country can only support so many people. There are only so many jobs, so much land for housing, and so forth. Maybe someday in the near future there will be a balance found between the economics and the humanitarianism. A balance that will allow those searching for a better life to come to America and know that they add to our nations success. The days of give me your tired, your poor may have to end but our door should always be open to those longing to work toward a better tomorrow in a land of freedom.
Works Cited Amselle, Jorge. Immigrants: Helping or Harming the U.S.?. The World & I 10 (1995): 60. Bean, Frank D., Barry Edmonston, and Jefferey S. Passel. Undocumented Migration to the United States:IRCA and the Experience of the 1980s.Washington: The Urban Institute Press, 1990. Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest. 2nd ed. Armonk: Sharpe, 1996. Castro, Max J. Free Markets, Open Societies, Closed Borders? Trends in International Migration and Immigration Policy in the Americas. Coral Gables: North-South Center, 1999. Divine, Robert A. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957. Immigration Enforcement Improvements Act of 1995:FAct Sheet. Lectric Law Library. 9 Nov. 1999 Kirschten, Dick. Supply and Demand. Government Executive 31 (May 1999): 16. Marley, Bruce Robert. Exiling the new felons:The consequences of the retroactive application of aggravated felony convictions to lawful permanent residents. San Diego Law Review 35 (1998 Summer): 855-895. Mont, Daniel. Welfare and Immigrants. Migration World 6 (1996): 8-20. Suro, Robert. Watching Americas Door: The Immigration Backlash and the New Policy Debate. New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1996. United States;The Next Masses. Economist 1 May 1999: 26-28. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Strategic Plan: Toward INS 2000: Accepting the Challenge.
The Golden Door to America
I wrote this paper for Political Life 1110