I was once in favor of an immigration regime equivalent to open borders. Then I did some thinking, along the lines of this famous G. K. Chesterton quote:
There exists… a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I do not see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer, “If you do not see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it….”
Some person had a good reason for thinking (the gate or fence) would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.…The truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served.
But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion….
[From The Thing]
So: Why do nations have borders and immigration laws? Were they instituted to serve a purpose we can analyze, or were they merely “a senseless monstrosity that has sprung up” and which we have not yet seen fit to dismiss?
The question is particularly relevant to the current pressure against the southern border of the United States. That pressure exists for a simple reason: there are multitudes on one side of the border who want to be on the other one. Questions arise:
- Why do those multitudes want admission to the U.S.?
- What would be the effects of admitting them?
- Is there historical evidence on the subject?
America once had an open-borders policy. Its foremost symbol is Ellis Island, the processing center for new immigrants from Europe from 1892 to 1954. Many millions entered this country through that gate.
Those millions mostly became law-abiding Americans. They put a strain on the nation’s public sector for a while, particularly its public schools, but over time the assimilated, they and their children learned the English language, and they formed stable communities. Their industry and responsibility returned a great deal more to the nation than the cost of having originally admitted them.
Yes, there were a few smudges on that pretty picture. Our Northeastern cities acquired Irish and Italian crime gangs. Inter-ethnic animosities were acted out in street fights and urban warfare. Unscrupulous employers and other parasites found ways to exploit new arrivals. And of course not all the immigrants of the period came here to become law-abiding Americans. Still in aggregate, the immigrant influx of the early 20th Century proved a net benefit to our still-growing society and economy.
That’s the picture the open-borders advocate would have you see as he argues for his preferred policy. But it omits several important features:
- The immigrants were almost all European Christians or Jews.
- They were required to support themselves; there was no “welfare state.”
- The laws of the period licensed and regulated far fewer occupations than the laws of today.
- Assimilation was demanded of those immigrants, a far cry from the expectations of our time.
In other words, the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, and the America that awaited them, differed in several critical ways from the migrants pressing our borders and our nation today. To look at the success of immigration of that earlier period and say “Why can’t we do that again?” is to overlook those critical factors.
For immigrants to be a net benefit to a nation, they must be compatible with its most important norms:
- Its laws and norms of conduct;
- Its dominant language;
- Its economic system.
The admission, legally or otherwise, of immigrants incompatible with American laws, norms, language, and economy has done us great harm. It’s resulted in the distortion of our public institutions, especially our schools. It’s put a sharply increased burden on our “social safety net.” And it’s created exclaves in which English is not spoken and the laws of the surrounding state and nation are largely ignored.
The altered laws and reduced expectations that have facilitated the immigrant waves of the most recent decades, whether legal or illegal, took down a gate of the sort Chesterton mentioned in the opening quote. They who strove to dismantle that gate are responsible for what has followed.
The gate must go back up. The insistence upon assimilation, especially, is vital to any program of immigration. Restoring that gate is the key, regardless of whence the would-be immigrants of today might come. The majority of contemporary immigrants have no intention of assimilating and experience no pressure to do so. Worse, a great many of them strive to change the United States, or a portion of it, into a replica of their motherlands, including the horrors that drove them forth.
It is these ugly facts that today’s open-borders advocate would have us ignore.