The Most Important Immigration Question for the Next President

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This is the second in a four-part series.

The most important question confronting the president in 2012 is simple; What is the purpose of immigration? After answering that question, he needs to address the subsidiary issue of how his immigration policies, and immigration laws, forward that purpose.

For the first hundred years of American history, our laws were designed to encourage and welcome immigrants from around the world. Immigrants were seen as a force to build America’s standing in the world, as a source both of labor and of knowledge. By the late 1800s, immigration policies were being recrafted to exclude. The vision of America’s thinkers was white, and laws against non-white immigrants, beginning with the Chinese, proliferated. By 1924, even those immigrants who were white, just not white enough, were pushed out of the immigrant stream. Jews, Italians, Poles, and others lost their place in line. Immigration restriction was seen as vital to the task of forging a white man’s republic.

Our immigration laws became an international embarrassment during the Cold War. Communists pointed to discrimination against non-whites in our immigration laws as they countered U.S. claims to global leadership. John F. Kennedy’s new vision of more inclusive immigration laws, only realized after his death, may have owed a lot to his identification with his Irish ancestry but it also came in response to Cold War propaganda.

Our immigration laws reflect our society’s vision of the place of immigrants in the life of our country. The vision of the Founders was broad, that of the last century’s racists was white, and Kennedy’s was transcendently transnational. Since then, politicians have offered little of the “vision thing” when it comes to the topic. Instead, we hear about border fences, “streamlining”, “stapling green cards to diplomas”, and “they’re stealing our jobs”.

The new president has to be a person capable of shutting out the noise and articulating a vision.

America needs the best and the brightest brains on the planet to thrive economically. China and Japan have virtually no immigration. Most of Europe is so conflicted about immigrants that full integration there is not even a realistic possibility. The U.S., for all its flaws, has a history of accepting immigrants, incorporating them into the political system, and allowing for cultural transference. A United States that turns its back on the self-destroying security-only restrictionism of the post-9/11 period can take advantage of rising educational levels worldwide in unparalleled ways. Immigration policies that fearlessly feed American innovation will insure that our economy is always on the cutting edge.

America also needs to provide a way for lower skilled workers to come here legally to do the types of work they are already doing illegally. Few Americans will travel from farm to farm to do the agricultural work that feeds us each day. Yet states like Arizona and Alabama pretend that if only the immigrants could be pushed out, Americans would flood the tomato patch. This has left undocumented workers living lives of unimaginable misery while they feed us and are repaid with scorn and exploitation.

The delusion that some new class of native-born Okies will hit the roads in their Model Ts to rescue agriculture (and home healthcare, and meat processing) is too delusional for the political elite in any party to believe, let alone to honestly run for office on.

The new president must understand that immigration is as much a part of the America’s economic fabric as the free enterprise system itself. His policies must reflect that fact.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is Director of Legal Services at CARECEN and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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