Listen for a few minutes to the raging debate over the fate of the Syrian refugees, and you will hear a familiar phrase rear its weary head: “The United States is a nation of immigrants.” This line has two purposes in modern American life. The first is to serve as a dry description of the period between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, during which the United States accepted tens of millions of émigrés looking for a better life. The second is to act as a cudgel in our contemporary immigration debate. Over the past few years, President Obama has proven himself to be especially fond of the phrase. The United States, Obama submits, has “weaved a tradition of welcoming immigrants into the very fabric of who we are”; its people, he argues, “were strangers once, too,” and found good neighbors here; this is, above all else, “a nation of immigrants.” His conclusion? We should change our current system in exactly the way he desires.
In a purely historical sense, the president and his parrots are correct: The United States does indeed have a long tradition of welcoming outsiders to its shores. But, in the immediate context, one must ask “So what?” The question currently before us is not “Should Americans ever accept new people into their midst?” or “Is immigration a good thing per se?” but “What policy should the United States adopt toward the Syrian refugee crisis?” It cannot be answered merely by appealing to general principles. Unless you’re for open borders without checks, you are, by definition, in favor of drawing a line somewhere. And if you’re for a drawing a line somewhere, you are, by definition, for some restrictions. Perhaps you are less restrictionist than others. Perhaps you consider yourself to be less “fearful” or less “racist” than those with whom you disagree. Perhaps you think that your policy is the only moral and practical one. Fine, fine, and fine. But you’re still a restrictionist; you just covet a different set of restrictions than do some others. Picking a point on the continuum and deciding that it represents timeless American values is little more than folly. Unless you want a complete absence of laws, someone will always be able to out-Nation-of-Immigrants you.
As far as I can see, the questions with which the people of the United States are presently grappling are, 1) Should we take a risk and allow into the country a host of people among whom a few terrorists might be hiding?; 2) If so, how many should we take?; 3) Which criteria should we lay out when deciding who exactly is eligible?; and 4) Which processes should we put in place to screen those who apply? Mawkishly reminding one another that America has played host to a lot of immigrants in the last two centuries does precisely nothing to help us in this endeavor. It’s an appeal to emotion, and little else.
#share#That the phrase is so often thrown down as a potential conversation stopper is especially peculiar given that the people of the United States are legally authorized to contrive whatever immigration plan they wish. In the last two hundred years, there have been periods during which there were no immigration laws at all, and periods during which those laws were complex, and even evil. There have been periods during which outsiders flooded in, and periods during which the borders were all but closed. The system has been unpredictable: A Japanese expat heading for California in 1885 would have been welcomed with just an inspection; his grandson, applying in 1933, would have been summarily turned away. Romanticize it as we may, this area is just not as simple as we pretend it is. When a free-speech or Second Amendment advocate notes in absolute terms that this is a nation founded upon certain political precepts, he is correctly reminding his audience that the government is legally allowed to restrict his liberty in only a small number of ways. When an immigration advocate appeals to history, he is doing little more than begging the question.
Ultimately, our present contretemps is the result of two equally important aims coming into conflict. Certainly, there are many Americans who remain instinctively friendly toward those fleeing oppression. The Mayflower, Ellis Island, and the Irish Potato Famine still loom large in the American imagination, as does Emma Lazarus’s famous paean to the “masses yearning to breathe free.” But there are a host of Americans who are also wary of allowing Europe’s problems into their backyard. (This paradox has haunted the question of immigration since the Founding era.)
#related#Put bluntly, Americans do generally want to invite exiles in, but not at the expense of establishing in the United States the conditions that led them to flee in the first place. As Ian Tuttle established convincingly earlier today, it is neither irrational nor unreasonable to worry that a liberal policy toward the Syrian refugees will bring in both a host of deserving outcasts and a smattering of their tormenters. Quite how we attempt to square this circle I am not sure. As so often in American politics, conflicting values have led us to a messy place. But shrieking hysterically about history and attempting to shame the dissenters is not going to cut it this time.