ASCF Report | 4.2.12*
By Alan W. Dowd
Like the ebb and flow of the
tide, the illegal-immigration issue comes and goes as a hot-button topic. Just
compare, for example, how prevalent immigration was in policy debates in 2004
and 2008—and how heated those debates became—with how low it rates in the 2012
presidential campaign. This is largely a function of America’s
weak economy, which has made the United States less attractive to
immigrants looking for short-term work or a long-term address. In fact,
immigration levels have actually fallen in recent years. There are 11.5 million
illegal immigrants in the country today, down from 12 million in 2007. But just
like the tide, the challenges and tensions created by illegal immigration will
return as soon as the economy heats up. In other words, the time for building a
21st-century immigration system is now—and it’s long-overdue.
First things first:
Immigration is not the problem. Ours is a nation of immigrants—each new wave of
immigrants serving as a wellspring for our country, a reminder of our roots and
history, a surge of growth and dynamism. All told, America’s foreign-born
population stands at 36.7
million—or about 11.5 percent of the overall population—but just 16
million of those immigrants are naturalized (more on that below).
To put those numbers in
perspective, Census Bureau statistics tell us that in 1890, America’s
foreign-born population was 15 percent of the population; in 1900, it was 13.5
percent of the overall population; in 1930, it was 11.5 percent of the
population. In other words, today’s immigration numbers may be high, but the
percentage is well under the highs the last 125 years.
Even so, high immigration
levels are worrisome to some Americans. But consider the alternatives: living
in a country to which no one wants to migrate, or living in a country that is
aging and dying due to low immigration levels.
Immigration into Russia, for
instance, has fallen from 1.2 million to just 185,000. As a result, Russia is withering
away. Researchers with RAND conclude that by
the middle of this century, the transcontinental, multi-ethnic empire built by
the czars will be populated by fewer than 100 million people—down from 145
million today. By 2050, China
will be losing
some 20 million people every five years. Similarly, Japan and Europe
are rapidly aging, lacking the immigration levels and birth rates to reverse
the trend. But America’s
population growth rate outpaces Europe’s, Japan’s
this is largely related to immigration.
Although immigration is a
good thing, illegal immigration is not. It undermines respect for the law, eats
away at America’s unity, strains public agencies, distorts the labor market and
even exposes American citizens to security threats, as evidenced by Iran’s plot
to subcontract the assassination of a Saudi diplomat to a Mexican cartel—and by
Mexico’s bloody drug war. As Secretary of Homeland
Security Janet Napolitano recently conceded, “We have, for some time, been
thinking about what would happen if, say, al Qaeda were to unite with the
Zetas” drug cartel.
That explains why securing
the border and deterring illegal immigration must be the primary focus of any
Regrettably, the “secure
border initiative,” which envisioned the use of cameras, radar and high-tech
sensors to staunch the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico, was
recently cancelled. And the surge of National Guard troops to border areas,
which began in 2006, is being phased
out this year.
The importance of securing
the border cannot be overstated. After all, it only stands to reason that the
easier it is to come across the border illegally, the less likely it is that
immigrants will choose legal avenues of immigration.
If/when Washington decides it’s ready to secure the
border, the American people then will be able to focus on mainstreaming the illegal
immigrants who are here by offering a path to citizenship or offering them a
trip back home.
For those who enter the
country illegally, any path to citizenship must include proof that the
immigrant has foresworn allegiance to another country as well as some sort of
penalty. Even if America’s
immigration system is imperfect and slow, it doesn’t give immigrants license to
enter the country illegally. No matter how hard-working he is, no matter how
sincere her desire to live the American dream, the very first act of an illegal
immigrant entering this country is—by definition—to violate U.S. law. If the
law means anything, if there is to be justice for those who enter the country
legally, there must be a penalty for entering illegally.
To bring illegal immigrants
out of the shadows and mainstream them into America’s civic life, we could
benefit from relearning what worked in the past.
From 1892-1954, some 12
million people entered America
through the gateway of Ellis Island. In his
history of Ellis Island, Keepers of the
Gate, Thomas Pitkin writes that when Frederic Howe became commissioner of Ellis Island, his goal was “to have immigrants well
started on their way to becoming good American citizens before they left the
island.” Toward that end, Howe set up partnerships with local school boards to
teach English to arriving immigrants, provided what one magazine called “a
beginner’s class in American citizenship” and endeavored to “Americanize the
Island’s lifecycle was a
function of demand. It came into existence because of the demand created by
European migration into the U.S.,
which almost always culminated at the ports of New York. Today, with the bulk of immigrants
emanating from Mexico and
entering along the U.S.
southern border, perhaps it makes sense to create a constellation of 21st-century
EllisIslands at high-volume entry points and
in areas where immigrant populations are concentrated. Abandoned military bases
could serve as immigration centers, where immigrants could be evaluated,
provided short-term accommodations, instructed in English and U.S. civics, set on a path toward
full citizenship and “well started on their way to becoming good American
That brings us back to
naturalization. Regrettably, our naturalization system is not living up to the
tried-and-true methods that once transformed the “huddled masses” into American
citizens. According to the Census Bureau, only 44 percent of the foreign-born
population is naturalized today—down from 50 percent in 1980, which was down
from 63 percent in 1970, which was down from 78 percent in 1950. This is leading
to what Theodore Roosevelt once described as “hyphenated
Americanism”—and ultimately to balkanization.
TR worried about America becoming “a tangle of squabbling
nationalities” and viewed naturalization—embracing America,
learning English, gaining an appreciation for American history and civics—as
vital to America’s
health. “When I refer to hyphenated Americans,” he explained, “I do not refer
to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known
were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is
not an American at all. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul.”
The words are just as true—and
just as applicable—a century later.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.