Should America Close the Golden Door?America has, is, and will always be a nation of immigrants: the great melting pot. In theyears that have passed since Emma Lazarus poem was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty thegolden door has seen times when it was open wide and times when it was closed shut to almostall immigrants. Many people tend to look at the present immigration problems as a purely moderndilemma. The truth is America has always struggled with the issue of immigration, both legal andillegal.
Changing times however make it imperative that our government re-examine and adjusttodays 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 andthose who claim it is ruining the nation. More often than not the bottom line in any debate of thissort is money; will more or less immigration mean more or less money for those already inAmerica.
The moral debates come down to a question of who we are as a nation and how wewant the rest of the world to perceive Americans. If this great country was forged and built byimmigrants passing through the golden door , then how can this same country turn away newimmigrants. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty invites all to enter, yet not all are allowed toenter. Immigration has become a selective process with many gray areas. Now Americans arefaced with a new dilemma; the nation must decide not whether it is willing to accept newimmigrants, but whether it can afford new immigrants.
All new immigrant, both legal and illegal must be considered in this equation. Congresscan attempt to ease the burden of legal immigration by passing restrictive laws and only allowingin those who they believe will become self-sufficient. Congress must also find a way to slow theflow of illegal immigration by enforcing the laws already in place. What this paper will attempt todo 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 willnever totally eliminate immigration, because no matter how tightly the door is closed some illegalimmigrants 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 havealways come to America looking for a better life and Americans are always forgetting that theirforefathers were once looking for that same life. As a nation there must be a decision on whetherimmigration is an issue of conscience or economics.
History of Immigration LawsThough most Americans see immigration as a modern problem it has been heavily debatedsince the 19th century. Throughout most of Americas history immigration was seen as a naturalprocess that benefited the nation (Divine 2). Until the 1890s there were no clearly definedpolicies on immigration. During this time the country started questioning the economic benefits ofmore immigrants, so things have note changed in that respect. In May 1921, the first bill inAmerican history restricted European immigration and created the quota system (Divine 5). Thisturn toward restriction could be justified by the downward turn in the economy. Who could arguefor more immigrants when the nations own citizens couldnt find work. The slowing economyand the spirit of intense nationalism in the United States at this time made immigration a hottopic (Divine 23).
After the depression hit everyone was in agreement that there was a need to limitimmigration, of course the extent of those limits were not easily agreed upon (Divine 77). WorldWar II brought with it a new set of immigrants, and eventually the passing of the DisplacedPersons Act of 1947. This allowed immigrants, displaced by the war to enter the country abovequota limits (Divine 128). Since then our legislators have been faced with numerous proposalsconcerning immigration, too many in fact to mention. Those mentioned above are significant inthe fact that they show a definite shift in Americas attitude toward immigration. Since the 1920simmigration has not been seen as a natural process, but a process that could overwhelm a nation ifleft unchecked.
Current Immigration Laws and IssuesAs of this time there are no less than fifty proposed bills in Congress that can affectimmigration, which proves that this is an ongoing battle with little chance of ending. In recentyears the immigration policy has found itself in a state of flux; going back and forth between proand anti immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 is one of the more current policies to regulateimmigration. This policy sets a flexible annual limit on immigration at a rate of 700,000immigrants per year until 1994 when the number will drop to 675,000. This number of coursedoes not include refugees and those seeking asylum (Immigration…). If these numbers seemstaggering one must take into account the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrantsadded to the nations population each year (Suro 8). In the mid-90s there was a shift in Americasimmigration policy to close the doors and end the current era of immigration (Suro 8). In fact inPresident Clintons 1995 State of the Union Message he said: It is wrong and ultimatelyself-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws wehave 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 wasmeant to secure our borders, make deportation of illegal easier, and discourage the employmentof illegal aliens (Immigration…). In essence this was a proposal to enforce the laws already inplace. 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 legislationworked. What is clear is the continuing struggle to find a balance in the immigration system. Manycitizens are concerned with such issues as overpopulation, lack of jobs, and the cost to tax payersif this mass wave of legal and illegal immigrants continues (Castro 198). ConcernsAmerica has established such an inherent open heart/open door policy that it seems themelting pot may be about to boil over. Some estimates put the United States population overcapacity by as much as one-hundred million (Amselle 60). Americas lax attitude towardoverpopulation may have turned to one of danger that must be avoided (Amselle 60). In thepast immigration was somewhat balanced; a good economy meant more immigrants and a slowereconomy saw a decrease in immigration (Amselle 60). There are those who feel the United Stateshas absorbed all the people it can (Amselle 60). Then you have those like Joel Kotkin of theProgressive Policy Institute who feel that the large numbers of immigrants are working ageadults, that America needs to offset the growing number of pensioners (Amselle 60). Even ifthe immigrant population can offset the number of pensioners, the number of resources in thecountry will still be divide amongst a much larger population. One must also take into account thenumber of illegal immigrants added to the population. They will also be replacing those retiringpensioners at a lower wage with no taxes or social security payments. America has a largepopulation of baby boomers and will need working-age persons to fill the void left by theirretirements, but there must be a limit to the number of immigrants we become dependant uponand a dramatic decrease in illegal immigrants. During the 1980s when all other industrializednations were making restrictions on immigration Americas doors were open and now the nationbegins the daunting task of closing those doors (Briggs 5). There is some concern that closing thedoors could heighten the feeling that the nation is under siege (Suro 15). Overpopulation is initself 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? Canour economy support its own citizens, immigrants, and illegal aliens. America is experiencing aperiod 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 takingthe few unskilled jobs that are available in some areas (Kirschten 16). These are legitimate fearsthat call into question the governments ability to regulate immigration. Tax paying citizens arealso concerned that the tax dollars they pay each year are being used to help educate illegalimmigrants and not those who are rightfully in this country (Amselle 60). When there is a largepopulation of immigrants in an area citizens tend to view them in a hostile manner because of theperceived 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 (Castro180).
Benefits of ImmigrationImmigrants help to relieve our nations labor shortage. The truth is that due to a decline inthe fertility rate in the United States some leading demographers predict that without substantialimmigration America will have a shrinking population (Briggs 127). A shrinking population wouldmean a higher cost of living and a slow decline in the economy. This alone does not diffuse thealarm of overpopulation but it does give a different view of the situation. Take into account theagricultural 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 legalimmigrants, America must find a way to make immigration work for the good of the nation aswell as the best interest of the immigrants (Briggs 240). In the end a young immigrant populationmay very well save such programs as social security by increasing the number of workers in themarket (Mont 18). These are all economic benefits, but the diversity the United States gains is apriceless commodity that future generations of Americans will need to succeed in a growinginternational job market.
The Cost of ImmigrationThe United States immigration policy does not allow people to immigrate if they areexpected to be dependant on public services. Yet in 1993 approximately 12% of the 5.9 millionrecipients of Supplemental Security Income benefits were immigrants, even though they onlyaccount for about 5% of the population (Mont 15). Statistics such as these add to the growinganti-immigrant sentiment among American citizens. This anti-immigrant attitude was clearlyreflected in 1994 with the passing of Californias Proposition 187. Actions such as Proposition187 can create a very hostile and possibly dangerous atmosphere for all immigrants. What it reallyboils down to is a belief among Americans that immigrants simply cost too much. Immigrationmeans increased job competition, more money spent on welfare, and increased competition foreducational funding. Although Proposition 187 was aimed at curbing the health care cost of illegalimmigrants, most Americans simply see it as an immigrant issue and pay little attention to detailsconcerning the status of those immigrants actually receiving benefits. Many believe that immigrantworkers, both legal and illegal, hold down wages in low paying jobs. Especially in areas such asCalifornias Central Valley where most of the workers are immigrant and up to 40% are believedto be illegal (Kirschten 16). Illegal ImmigrationThe 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 thenAmerica may not be perceived as a sovereign nation (Mont 16). Illegal immigration is not onlybad for the nation, but for the illegal immigrant as well. The fact that illegal workers have norecourse in the law makes them susceptible to unscrupulous business people who will exploitthem simply to make money. The supply of illegal workers has created a part of the United Statesbusiness economy that works outside of government regulations (Suro 34). Illegal immigrantsface lower wages, unsafe work environments, and a lack of benefits. This in turn keeps wages lowand makes it difficult for legal residents to get these jobs. Most employers are looking at thebottom 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 illegalimmigrants; 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 aninsignificant number of people has had great impact on our nation (Suro 50). The irony of theentire situation is that while the nation is calling for an end to illegal immigration, no one isforcing illegal immigrants to leave (Suro 35). While illegal aliens violate the law with theirpresence, 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 nolonger in control. Many citizens, especially the working poor, feel that illegal immigrantssometimes receive more benefits. The reality of illegal immigration is that it has been anincreasingly difficult problem to solve. For three decades now our government has been trying tofind ways to alleviate the number of illegal immigrants in the nation. One attempt was theAmnesty 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 fromCalifornia. Which is ironic seeing as how California is often at the forefront of the campaignagainst illegal immigration. Illegal immigration has become a familiar part of American societyand will not likely see much improvement in the next millenium.
The Future of ImmigrationINS 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 thesame as they have always been: facilitate compliance with the law, create disincentives in theworkplace, 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 thatthey will receive the necessary funding to implement these plans successfully. Our government hastried to curb the flow of illegal immigrants with such actions as the North American Free TradeAgreement 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 onlyafter 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 Americawill drop by 8.5 million. That is a large loss of labor and can only be offset by the immigrantpopulation. 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 ImmigrantResponsibility Act of 1996 (Marley 880). The intent was to cut back on crime, terrorism, andwelfare fraud. They fell short of their intent because the inadvertently clumped all immigrantstogether, 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 aftersome foreign debacle, for economic reasons, and for purely humanitarian purposes (UnitedStates).
recently we saw our government agree to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees, and financially helpwith 20,000 more in Albania. Now 20,000 is a tiny gesture in the big picture, but in a world ofcrises how many times can our government afford such gestures. Can America continue to playthe role of the last true hope for the huddled masses of the world?ConclusionIllegal immigration must be curbed. If nothing else it is unfair to those who wait for yearsto come to America legally. Currently illegal immigrants can choose to leave on their ownmeaning they can come back legally if they choose. Our laws say that we can formally deportthese illegal immigrants and bar them from legal entry. Why does our government continue tocreate loopholes in the laws they pass. I dont feel that those enter the country illegally shouldhave a right to return; if they are willing to break immigration laws they are more likely to breakother laws. What does this policy say to those who lawfully await entry? That in America youreonly guilty if youre caught and then only if you dont agree to leave quietly. The lack ofpunishment for illegal migration is one of the reasons behind its increase. That however is just myopinion 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 inthe 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 toaccept the tired and poor, but America has changed and immigration must change also. To thosein underdeveloped countries the Statue of Liberty and her invitation to a better life must be hardto resist. What they dont see is what lies beyond her golden torch; a country teeming with peoplein fierce competition for that elusive dream of a better life. As a student of history and someonewho is proud of my heritage I want to say let them come. Let all who need a better life come toAmerica and try to build it here. As a realist I know that our country can only support so manypeople. There are only so many jobs, so much land for housing, and so forth. Maybe someday inthe near future there will be a balance found between the economics and the humanitarianism. Abalance that will allow those searching for a better life to come to America and know that theyadd to our nations success. The days of give me your tired, your poor may have to end but ourdoor should always be open to those longing to work toward a better tomorrow in a land offreedom.
Works CitedAmselle, 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 theUnited 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 InternationalMigration and Immigration Policy in the Americas. Coral Gables: North-South Center,1999.
Divine, Robert A. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952. New Haven: Yale UniversityPress, 1957.
Immigration Enforcement Improvements Act of 1995:FAct Sheet. Lectric LawLibrary. 9 Nov. 1999 *http://lectlaw.com/files/imm05.htm*Kirschten, Dick. Supply and Demand. Government Executive 31 (May 1999): 16. Marley, Bruce Robert. Exiling the new felons:The consequences of the retroactiveapplication of aggravated felony convictions to lawful permanent residents. San DiegoLaw 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 theChallenge. Political Issues
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