We’re All ‘Nations of Immigrants’ Now But Our Immigration Problems Are Different

Peggy Orchowski argues that immigration is fundamentally about work. Immigration Policy has to perform the tricky balance between bringing in workers that a country needs and protecting the jobs and working conditions of workers already in the country. The US has historically been soft on enforcing immigration laws as compared to Europe and needs a new immigration policy.

Most Americans proudly proclaim that our country’s most outstanding characteristic is that we are ‘A Nation of Immigrants’.  “It’s part of our DNA!” they say.  Most truly believe that America is unique in that way.  But it isn’t.  All nations are now ‘nations of immigrants’.  All confront the same global forces of migration, but each handles immigration in different ways.

It’s true that the US was perhaps the first modern democratic capitalistic sovereign nation state to have been peopled, established and founded by ‘immigrants’.   In many ways it is the most generous towards immigrants of all kinds – especially illegal.  But practically all nations founded in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere, were founded by immigrants or descendants of immigrants (often from Europe), rather than by  indigenous people.

Countries that were colonizers are now experiencing large increases in immigrant population. Many of the immigrants come from former colonies or protectorates and have become citizens.  Others come as refugees, students, workers and entrepreneurs. Many countries with declining native populations now look to immigrants for labor and tax income to support their future prosperity.  “It is time for the nations of the EU (and particularly Germany) to realize that now we are all ‘Nations of Immigrants’,” former German Chancellor (1998-2005) Gerhard Schröder said emphatically at a May 10 banquet by the German Historical Society and the ZEIT-Stiftung in Washington DC.  

So what do immigrant advocates really mean when they use the label ‘a Nation of Immigrants’ like a battle cry? The most vocal American activists who demand rights for illegal immigrants often end their speeches against ‘draconian’ immigration laws and the need for immigration laws to be ‘fixed!’ with the statement “After all, we are a Nation of Immigrants!”  Then they stop talking, implying that a ‘Nation of Immigrants’ ought to be a nation with open borders? Does this mean that there should be no immigration laws and no enforcement of existing immigration laws? 

Here’s where immigration confronts the basic conundrum of global migration: Immigration is a paradox!

The Global Immigration Paradox

On the one hand, the world’s leaders long ago agreed that it is a human right to leave one’s homeland. This right is codified in the United Nations charter. No country is allowed to prevent their citizens from leaving (unless perhaps they are convicted felons).

On the other hand, the immigration paradox is that no one has the human, civil or any other right to immigrate into a specific country just because they want to – just because the job opportunities are better, they have friends or family there, they like the culture, or maybe even because they spent time there for travel, study or exchange work. Some humanitarian and religious advocates might say there is a subjective moral right for immigrants to settle where they please.  The decision about who can come into, reside permanently, work, raise a family in and become a citizen of a particular country is the core right and responsibility of each country. The right to immigrate and the rights of immigrants in any country are issues which require a national decision, not an individual or international one. Even each nation state in the European Union has different rules regarding work visas and citizenship. For instance, in Liechtenstein, most work visa applicants are required to have a high tech background and 30 years of legal residency to become citizens.

A fact that we all know but some hate to acknowledge is that no country in the world has open borders! Moreover, despite many immigrant advocates’ romantic notions about early American history, the US never had open borders either. Even in its earliest colonial days, an immigrant had to belong to the right kind of religious sect (usually Protestant) and needed work skills to settle down in a colony. Settlement rules, regulations and their management were determined by colonial and later state officials and were often far harsher than any modern immigration laws. National immigration law was not established in the US until 1887 and at first it codified the exclusion of Chinese immigrant workers. Until 1965 it dealt with national quotas and preferences.  

In the US, there are some libertarian immigration activists who argue in favor of few, if any immigration laws. Corporate Libertarians, who tend to be conservative Republicans like former President George W. Bush, demand few if any regulations on access to cheap labor, while civil Libertarians like former Senator Edward Kennedy and many Catholic leaders evoke a humanitarian civil rights argument against immigration laws. Despite this, most Americans, like citizens in other parts of the world, want to retain the right of their country to determine the entry and settling of foreign nationals. 

This is because both immigrants and their host countries know that immigration is fundamentally about work and job opportunities.

Immigration at its Core is about Work

Immigrants usually leave their homelands for better job opportunities and when they are not migrant workers seeking better jobs they are dependants of these workers.

Similarly, most nation states need and want new immigrants to enrich their own workforce with hard-working, enthusiastic, and, often better trained and educated workers. Welcoming needed immigrant workers is in the positive interest of every country.

Law and Immigration

The phrase ‘Nation of Immigrants’ contains two elements: nation and immigrants. This is not to state the obvious! Almost everyone using the phrase refers only to immigrants. No country can be a successful ‘Nation of Immigrants’ if the basic needs of immigrants and of the country are not balanced. This is done by establishing a national culture of welcoming needed immigrants to come, stay, work, integrate, enrich the culture and become citizens; and by creating and enforcing fair immigration (and labor) laws that restrict numbers of immigrants to those necessarily required at the time.  

National immigration laws basically perform two roles:

  1. Bring in the energetic labor force that the nation needs to prosper; and
  2. Protect the jobs and working conditions of the citizen and immigrant work force already in the country.

In addition, other national goals can be met through immigration laws. In the US, the goal of diversity is built into the 1965 immigration reform law, which did away with earlier national quotas and preferences. In the EU, a humanitarian response to generously host refugees from war-torn countries is evident in their immigration laws – much more so than in the US. In contrast, no industrialized country accepts “economic refuge” as a legitimate claim for immigration.

In his highly covered May 10 immigration speech on the Texas border, President Obama showed a better understanding of immigration laws than many of those advocating the rights of illegal immigrants.  He repeated several times in his speech that: “We are (not only) a Nation of Immigrants” and/but we are also “A Nation of Laws.”

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kennedy’s replacement as head of the Senate immigration committee, also understands this principle:  “Americans like immigrants,” he often says.  “But they don’t like illegal immigration.  Illegal immigration is not good for the country or for the immigrant.”

That’s true of any country.  But for Americans, illegal immigration is the biggest immigration problem.

Why is there Massive Illegal Immigration in America?

The problem with laws in a “free” country like the US is their enforcement. Laws by definition state what is legal and what isn’t, what can be done and what can’t.  It can be assumed (though he didn’t say it) that when President Obama stated that the US is “a Nation of Laws” he meant that laws were meant to be enforced. Americans are energetic in making new laws and regulations. Yet they are not as energetic when it comes to enforcement – penalties for speeding, jaywalking, even drug use and illegal profiteering are almost totally disregarded.

When it comes to immigration laws, Americans have never taken their breaking very seriously.  In fact, unlike in most countries, to be in the US illegally is not a criminal felony. To sneak across the border illegally is only a misdemeanor. To overstay a temporary visa (student, visitor, temporary worker, etc.) is only a civil offense, no more than crossing the street on a red light. Immigrant advocates are vociferous in protesting the arrest and deportation of any person whose only offense is being in the country illegally. It gets trickier if the detained illegal immigrant has false documents or has been deported before – those are felony offenses.  But again, immigrant advocates claim they are not ‘aggravated violent felonies’ and should not be punished by deportation. Indeed, some Americans even seem to believe that illegal immigrants are a protected class of people who can commit misdemeanors and non-violent felonies with impunity, as witnessed by constant argument for amnesty for immigrants who have immigrated and are working illegally

Such American attitudes often amaze foreign visitors.  One Scandinavian Ambassador to the US told me off-the-record after a visit to California:  “I cannot understand the extreme tolerance Americans have towards illegal immigrants! Even American labor unions protect them!  It’s unbelievable!”

My only explanation for such American tolerance is the historic addiction of Americans – including successful new immigrants – to cheap immigrant labor that is eager, hard-working, non-complaining and even highly grateful. In fact, the US was built on the back of such labor. It was supplied initially not only by the new Puritan colonists and pioneers, but also by indigenous Indian labor, many of whom died.  Later, indentured servants from Europe filled the demand and most were given land after completing their bondage of five-to-seven years. Once they became citizens, they in turn hired indentured servants of their own. Indentured immigrants were succeeded by black slaves from West Africa and the West Indies, and after the civil war, by Jewish and Catholic immigrants to the East Coast, by Asians on the West Coast, by Volga Germans in the Midwest, and since the 1960s, throughout the country, by Latinos from Central America. 

Americans usually shrug off any guilt about this labor exploitation. After all, eventually all these laborers or their descendants became free and voting citizens. The initiatives to grant amnesty and a “pathway to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants in 1986, tried unsuccessfully again in 2007, and various schemes such as the DREAM Act today, only propagate this disingenuous immigration modus operandi:  Come in however you can! Work hard and quietly (this includes foreign graduate students working in our best universities) for little pay, and eventually you will gain amnesty and a pathway to citizenship. 

This process becomes a moral hazard when there is a high unemployment rate among citizens and the legal immigrant work force. At present there are 14 million unemployed Americans. By even conservative estimates, there are over 8 million foreign nationals who are working illegally in the country. The unemployment rate for Latino workers in the US, including those working illegally,) is far lower than that of African Americans.

How can this be allowed?  Besides the unique American tolerance for our historic addiction to cheap labor, there are three other American reasons for tolerating millions (estimates range from 12 to 20 million) of illegal immigrant workers:

  1. Few if any enforced regulations exist which force American businesses to hire legal workers;
  2. A long tradition of management hostility towards unions that protect American labor conditions; and
  3. The absolute refusal of almost all Americans, regardless of political or any other kind of affiliation, to establish a counterfeit-proof national identity card.

New Immigration Reform Paradigm

With an economy that is seeing a jobless recovery, attitudes towards illegal immigration are finally beginning to change. There is the possibility that Congress will pass a law this year requiring all businesses to utilize an electronic work-permit-validation system called E-Verify before hiring foreign national workers. There is also a strong indication that the President and Congress may adopt a more Canadian/ European preference to grant permanent immigration visas to educated migrants, including to those already living in the country illegally. While illegal immigration may never come to be deemed a felony in the US, it seems likely that its reduction will become a priority for both Republican and Democratic politicians and administrators.

This move towards more rather than less educated immigrants and stronger enforcement of immigration laws in the US is being propelled by a uniquely American phenomenon – increasingly aggressive states demanding a say in immigration issues that impact their job opportunities and community resources.  Many of the new immigration initiatives that Congress will pass in the next year or two will be first tested in state initiatives and (increasingly) in state and federal courts.

That is not to say that citizens of ‘Nations of Immigrants’– who by definition are almost all immigrants or descendents of immigrants themselves – fear ‘the other’ as some on the left and right like to say. Americans in particular have had remarkable success in integrating immigrants. While various immigrant nationalities have experienced at various times the natural human difficulty and conflicts associated with having their heritage country at war and hostile to their new one (Germans, Japanese, Iraqis to name a few) most Americans are open to immigrants who are enthusiastic about integrating. In fact Americans expect immigrants to become citizens. While Americans do not always appreciate how long it takes some immigrants to fully integrate, it is still worth noting that unlike in Europe where integration takes decidedly longer than in the US, children of migrant families in the US are so well incorporated into American culture that by the third generation, they are usually completely monolingual with English as their only language.

Refugee Problem in Europe

The immigration problem in Europe is different. Temporary immigrant workers were recruited and welcomed in the post-War decades but then they stayed on and started raising children and grandchildren. Fully integrating these descendants of immigrants has been a challenge in many European countries, especially because many immigrants have come from highly restrictive social and religious cultures. The former German Ambassador to the US, Dr. Klaus Scharioth, expressed the immigration situation very well.  In his words, “Europe is for the most part sectarian. We don’t expect our new citizens to become Christians.  But we do expect them to learn the language and to fully accept the values of the Enlightenment, including tolerance towards behavior that might be taboo in their homelands”.

“We search for, recruit and welcome immigrants with high tech skills,” the Swedish Minister of Migration Tobias Billstroem told me last October. “We don’t have a lot of low-wage jobs available”.  “I bought a small house with a garden so I could have the pleasure of working in it, not to hire a cheap laborer to do it,” my German brother-in-law sniffed.  “We don’t buy things that others have to take care of, as in America.”

In spite of the prevalence of sentinments such as the above, low-skilled and unselected immigrants from some of the poorest and most war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East have been pouring into Europe, especially the Mediterranean countries.  Recently, Libya’s government has been accused by Italy’s frustrated Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of “criminally” forcing their African migrant workers to flee to Europe in broken-down boats. They are arriving by the thousands, will be reviewed as refugees but few if any will qualify. The problem is then that they may not leave.  “In Sweden the human rights groups have made deporting such migrants a moral issue,” stated Billstroem.  He added that “it has become a difficult political issue now.”  

It is clear that both the ‘Nations of Immigrants’ of Europe and America are eyeing the global migration pool in similar ways.  Increasingly, European and American citizens are demanding and voting for more targeted immigrant recruitment aimed at smart, highly educated immigrants who will create jobs rather than add to existing unemployment, and for tighter enforcement of immigration laws against illegal immigrants. In our so-called ‘globalized’ world made up of ‘Nations of Immigrants’ as well as masses of mobile migrant job seekers, new immigration laws in the foreseeable future will increasingly reflect the specific needs of each nation to prosper and not just meet the desire of the millions of migrating workers to find better jobs under the guise of civil rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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