In James Wilson’s analysis of American bureaucracy since the 18th century, he highlights the vague and competing goals of U.S. immigration policy:
“Keep out illegal immigrants, but let in necessary agricultural workers … carefully screen foreigners seeking to enter the country, but facilitate the entry of foreign tourists … find and expel illegal aliens, but do not break up families, impose hardships, violate civil rights, or deprive employers of low-paid workers.”
Wilson’s observation remains accurate in 2012, when U.S. politicians must choose between appeasing the American public with harmful action and misguided rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, or creating sensible policy that effectively handles the age-old dilemma of what to do with millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Traditionally, two approaches are tossed around by Democrats and Republicans alike: mass deportation or provide a viable path to citizenship. The U.S. government’s decision to support one approach over another has been directly tied to the nation’s economic health.
For example: During the pre-WWI period, the U.S. government recruited Mexicans, who were seen as a cheap and flexible labor force, to boost the economy. Not surprisingly, when the Great Depression hit, a significant amount of Mexican workers and their families were deported. As WWII refueled the U.S. economy in the 1940s, Mexican contract laborers were once again imported to work. However, by 1953, it was determined that illegal immigration was depressing wages and displacing U.S. workers, and so — in this period of Cold War paranoia where just about anything was subject to jeopardizing the ‘national security’ of the country — many Mexicans were rounded up and deported under “Operation Wetback.”
The economic recession since 2008 has caused history to repeat itself. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama’s administration has come under fire for high levels of deportations, sometimes without due process, as seen by last month’s deportation of an African-American teenager from Texas to Colombia after government officials failed to verify her citizenship.
To further complicate the immigration challenge, both Obama and GOP candidates advocate for bringing in more highly-skilled foreign workers to invigorate U.S. businesses. Why pursue this policy goal when there are millions of undocumented immigrants who could already possess the skills needed to jumpstart American entrepreneurship?
In Obama’s defense, his call for Congress to send the DREAM Act to his desk is a step in the right direction since the bill would help immigrants already in the U.S. get an education so they can contribute to America’s goal to win the future. However, GOP candidates that either oppose the entire bill or side only with provisions that allow a path to citizenship for those who served in the military are missing out on an opportunity to support a population where the next Einstein may already reside within U.S. borders.
In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, the country’s first Treasury Secretary, and an immigrant to the U.S. from the West Indies, warned Congress that “if the United States were to develop as an industrial power, immigration would have to be encouraged so as to offset the scarcity of hands and the dearness of labor.”
The persuasiveness of Hamilton’s argument still holds true today. It’s time for America’s politicians to craft reasonable and responsible immigration policy that simultaneously protects American citizens and welcomes those who want to help America reach the heights of its greatest potential.