A historical perspective on the illegal immigration issue

One argument put forth by those who advocate for what's coyly labeled "comprehensive immigration reform" or, in other words, amnesty for persons in the US illegally, is that our country has a long history of relatively open borders, including many years in its infancy when no documents or process were required. Just hop on a boat and come on over.

Ironically, the "living Constitution" crowd would like to revert immigration law to what it was in 1815. The problem is, the nature of the republic and its economy in 2010 is a far cry from its state two centuries ago.

I am currently reading the long, but excellent and revelatory, A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. Right now I'm starting the section about the period from 1815 to 1850, a time of rapid population growth fueled in large part by immigration.

Johnson observes that in the few years following the end of the War of 1812, immigration was indeed unfettered in any way. "The sheer freedom of movement was staggering. An Englishman, without passport, health certificate or documentation of any kind—without luggage for that matter—could hand over £10 at a Liverpool shipping counter and go aboard…. It was not even necessary to have £10, as the British provided free travel to Canada, whence the emigrants could bum rides on coastal boats to Massachusetts or New York. There was no control and no resentment…. In the five years up to 1820, some 100,000 people arrived in America without having to show a single bit of paper."

Why did people flock to America in this period? Religious and economic freedom, cheap and abundant land, and the opportunity to succeed without undue interference by the national government. In the words of John Quincy Adams as quoted in Johnson's work, "The American Republic invites nobody to come. We will keep out nobody. Arrivals will suffer no disadvantages as aliens. But they can expect no advantages either. Native-born and foreign-born face equal opportunities. What happens to them depends entirely on their individual ability and exertions, and on good fortune." (emphasis added)

What changed around 1820? A bank panic, what today we would call a severe recession or even a depression. Newly arrived immigrants found no new jobs, tight money, and a generally hostile reception from those already in the country. The new arrivals who survived and thrived did so, again, due to their own industry and hard work, not as a result of wealth redistribution.

Fast forward to 2010. Thanks to the particularly persistent Progressives, the US is basically just another European style social democracy, firmly committed to social welfare and wealth redistribution, focused less on equality of opportunity than on equality of results. In such a situation, newly arrived "undocumented" people need do no more than send their anchor babies to public schools for free education, and in countless other ways suckle at the teat of the nanny state. This necessarily detracts from the assets of citizens of all races and heritages who simply followed the laws. In such a state of affairs, even during deep recession the illegals keep flowing over our borders, many interested not so much in building their own wealth than in taking that of others. This is not at all what obtained in 1820, nor in any of the other great waves of immigration in our history.

The combination of porous, unenforced borders and increasing income redistribution favored by this country's current leaders have the capacity of bankrupting the nation much faster than either one alone. Does anyone wonder, then, why so many people who truly love America — and what it once stood for — are totally fed up with the ruling class in Washington?

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