Politics & Policy

Wrong On The Founders

The Wall Street Journal Independence Day tradition.

Before 9/11, the Wall Street Journal always used to celebrate Independence Day by publishing an editorial endorsing a constitutional amendment proclaiming that “there shall be open borders.” Since the attacks on the United States by foreign enemies who easily penetrated our borders (which were “open” in any objective sense), the Journal has refrained from the explicit promotion of their proposed constitutional amendment.

However, the open-borders ideology continues to haunt the Journal’s otherwise sensible editorial pages. On July 3, on the paper’s website, assistant editor Brendan Miniter begins his op-ed, “Let Their People Come,” with the quotation from the Declaration of Independence that complained about George III’s restrictions on European immigration to the American colonies. Miniter then uses this quotation as a launching pad to endorse a “fundamental right” of emigration to America and implies that this “right” is one of the founding principles of our nation. He thus maintains that the “right and necessity to allow people to live and move freely is self-evident indeed.”

In fact, exactly the opposite is true. As the Declaration of Independence states our nation is based on ” rights ” and “consent” — or “government by consent of the governed.” Clearly, in American democracy, immigration policy is decided by the “consent of the governed,” that is to say, by the American people. There is not — and never has been — a “fundamental right” to immigrate to the United States against the consent of the American people. To suggest otherwise, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page did on July 3, is to ignore the crucial principles of “consent” central to our democratic republic.

Nowhere in their voluminous writings do any of the Founders endorse the idea that everyone in the world has a “fundamental right” to immigrate to the United States. They would have considered such a notion preposterous. The Founding Fathers’ views on this subject are best explained by the Claremont Institute’s Thomas G. West in Vindicating the Founders in his chapter on immigration.

At the beginning of the chapter, Professor West notes that the United States from the first days of the republic has “always set limits” on immigration and citizenship. Moreover, he argues that:

To say that there is a fundamental right to immigrate is as much as to say that the government of one country is obliged to secure the rights of every person in the world who presents himself and demands it. Such an obligation is by nature both impossible and unjust….a violation of the fundamental terms of the social compact.

On immigration, assimilation, and citizenship naturalization, West finds that the views of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, John Jay, and Gouverneur Morris are remarkably similar.

First, the Founders believed that the American republic had the right to set the limits and conditions of immigration and eventual citizenship. As Gouverneur Morris stated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “every society from a great nation down to a club had the right of declaring the conditions on which new members should be admitted.”

Second, they welcomed immigrants, but on the condition that they become good citizens. As George Washington explained, “We shall welcome [them] to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

Third, the Founders insisted on assimilation. Washington wrote to Adams that he worried about immigrants “retain[ing] the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them” and favored “an intermixture with our people [where] they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, [and we] soon become one people.”

In short, the Founders maintained (sensibly enough) that immigration/assimilation policy be judged on the basis of national interest, i.e., what was good for America. There is not a scintilla of agreement between the Founders’ views and Miniter’s position that there is some “fundamental right” of free immigration. (Incidentally, Miniter’s position is also rejected by leading libertarians such as Milton Friedman).

For more than 200 years America has been enriched by millions of immigrants who have strengthened our nation. And Miniter is correct to say that there have been benefits in having a generous immigration policy (as, too, there have sometimes been deficits). But these are questions of national policy and national interest that reasonable people can debate, not self-evident moral principles.

The Journal’s writers would serve the American public (and mainstream conservatism) better if they produced serious and historically accurate July 4 editorials instead of repeating their annual exercise in self-parody.

John Fonte is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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