At the risk of uttering a terrible clich, America is a land of immigrants. The 13 British colonies that flourished on the Atlantic coast could not have existed were it not for brave men and women willing to start life anew in a strange land. These people came for many reasons; some wished to escape religious and political persecution; some to build a fortune. Whatever their motivation, America quickly became a land that welcomed all who wished to settle and prosper here.
Throughout our history, most people have recognized the benefits brought to our shores by immigration. It goes without saying that from the Industrial Revolution to the transatlantic railroad to Silicon Valley, Americans would not enjoy the wealth they have today without the contributions of the immigrant.
That understanding of the role of immigration (and the corresponding free trade that accompanies any open-border policy) in the building of the United States was wonderfully captured in the March issue of Readers Digest, in an article appropriately titled Dont Slam the Door by Tamar Jacoby. Following a brief examination of the generally unfriendly attitude towards immigrants in the United States since September 11, Jacoby outlines the huge volume of people and goods that flow across our borders. The numbers alone are mind-boggling, she writes. Last year the Customs Service processed 472 million people and 141 million cars and trucks entering the country. About 500,000 of these visitors were bona fide immigrants seeking to make a new life. Another 28 million or so were tourists, foreign students, and business travelers.
Understanding the much larger picture represented by Americas long borders and enormous domestic free-trade zone, Jacoby shows that perhaps the most important factor to be considered in any debate about individual movement is individual wealth: Truckers hauling freight from Canada and Mexico, workers getting to jobs in cities such as San Diego and Detroit, even shoppers all help keep the wheels of prosperity turning.
The article certainly doesnt shy from adding a more personal touch. Consider the story of Les Norton, co-owner of three clothing stores in Laredo, Texas, a city of 177,000 that serves approximately 81,000 Mexicans per day. We could survive [a closed border], but it would be a major, major blow to our operations, Jacoby quotes Norton. I invest in the stock market. I send my kids to college. I couldnt do any of that if it werent for the Mexican shopper, he goes on to say. Some of our stores do 80 to 90 percent of their business with Mexican citizens, said Miguel Conchas, president of Laredos chamber of commerce.
The commercial impact of a harsher U.S. immigration policy would also be felt far beyond Texas border towns. Immigrant labor, writes Jacoby, now provides critical manpower for many American industries everything from hotels and restaurants to garment making, construction and even computer manufacturing . . . . Agriculture is the most dramatic example: Some 80 percent of our farmhands are foreign-born. . . . Without immigrants, the retail prices of meat, fresh fruits and vegetables would rise some 15 percent.
And it doesnt end there. She writes, Cutting off immigration would also hammer high-tech companies. Scientists and engineers from around the globe are coming to the United States to work for higher wages and bringing us incredible technological developments in the process. In a nation with rising health-care costs, another factor in need of consideration is the large number of nurses who come to the United States from abroad. To ease a nursing shortage [which would raise the cost of nurse-labor] American hospitals recruit from as far away as the Philippines and as nearby as Canada.
Concluding the economic analysis of the piece, Stephen E. Flynn, a national-security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, best put the price of restrictive border policies into perspective: If trucks carrying parts for a Ford Explorer are stuck in an inspection line, assembly plants can quickly fall idle, with costs running as high as $1 million per hour. Despite an alleged concern for good American workers, the closed-border mentality of zealots such as Pat Buchanan is demonstrably harmful to laborers in this country.
Immigration and terrorism
It is at this point that the wisdom of Tamar Jacoby is found wanting. In an attempt to answer the question how to isolate terrorists without isolating America, she makes a few recommendations she feels would help make us safer from the Bad Guys.
Her first suggestion for protecting America from terrorists is to screen visitors more carefully before they get here. This is truly a nonsolution and a slight to all peaceful, law-abiding people. First of all, for those terrorists who do make an attempt through legal channels, finding a more careful screening process in their path will hardly present much of an obstacle. We have been deluged in the months since September 11 with tales of the multi-million-dollar worldwide terrorist network. Phony passports and visas are and would continue to be an easy means of avoiding detection upon entering the country. In short, a person intent on committing horrendous acts of violence on innocent Americans will hardly be deterred by having to break a few laws to get here.
Besides, why should someone who wishes to better his life in a new land, held up only by an accident of birth, be subject to a criminal investigation? Prior to September 11, Timothy McVeigh, an American citizen, had committed the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history. Should all white, native-born Americans then be carefully screened before pursuing their happiness in this country?
Jacobys last counsel should be considered the most ominous by freedom-lovers: Keep better tabs on visitors. There are far too many to track, she admits, unwittingly suggesting the futility of her own proposal, but even a little more knowledge would be helpful.
How is this tracking knowledge to be supplied? Congress is moving to insist that schools with foreign students report to the INS if they dont show up. My wife is an immigrant from the United Kingdom and a noncitizen. Should she be subject to federal scrutiny if she wants to change jobs or school or go on a lengthy vacation? Like gun-control laws, this kind of monitoring regime will serve only to harass the law-abiding. Worse, an immigration bill with bipartisan support will require the INS to electronically track whether travelers leave the country when theyre supposed to. Those who travel to the United States should not have to ask anyones permission should they decide they like it here nor be forced to submit to electronic collaring.
Regardless of their country of origin, it is a natural right of all to peacefully attempt to better their own position in life. Because of a common belief that concepts such as individual rights do not extend beyond our borders, people are far too prone to speak about immigration policy without any thought for the people these policies will be affecting.
The concept of liberty
The idea of America as a free country is firmly rooted in individual freedom. Though decades of statist influences have managed to infect our culture with notions of collective rights, the concept is nonetheless a logical impossibility. If government truly exists to protect individual rights, then any pretense of making laws to protect society will by definition create a legal and ethical conflict between the individual in question and the society he happens to be confronting at any given time.
With that in mind, it is important to emphasize that, regardless of how minor, effective, or pragmatic one might wish to couch his proposals for controlling immigrants, they will nevertheless require an abridgement of the immigrants rights (as well as the rights of the native-born) to free movement and free exchange. If ours is to be a nation based on individual rights, let us try to be consistent in their application. To act otherwise is to be both hypocritical and dishonest.
As for questions of how to protect this country in the wake of September 11, we should remember that terrorists hate America because our government thinks it owns the world. Rather than act like a little Dutch boy with our finger in the dyke, we would be better off reining in our arrogant leaders than hampering the ability of motivated immigrants to improve their lives in our country.
Finally, in any discussion of immigration and the status of our borders, we would be wise to remember the advice of Leonard Read: Mans mobility his own uninhibited travel and the free movement of his goods and services is the road to health, education, peace, wealth, that is, to human evolution. Let us exalt, not stifle, mans mobility! Human freedom and human development require the free movement of all peoples, goods, and services. Far from thinking of slamming the door, we should be opening our arms to those yearning to work and breathe free.