Immigration and How to Think About It
by

May I quote myself?

Thanks. I shall: “Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.”

I have used this bon mot on various occasions since coining it for a 1987 speech. I like its accuracy, its brevity, and, not least, the sly pun. Yet as those original Americans — the English — would say, it butters no parsnips. Nor guides us unfailingly to resolution of a problem productive of more anguish and amnesia than was the case in 1987. Anguish, I say, because illegal immigration tears the country apart; amnesia, in that we forget how sheer attractiveness, in deed and in spirit, perpetually sets us up for battles over who gets to live here, and on what terms.

The ongoing desire of non-Americans to pull up stakes and come here, legally or the reverse, might well flatter Americans, speaking as it does to the country’s ambience of freedom and the manifold opportunities that accrue with freedom. We’re stunned to see foreigners beating down our doors and pouring through the windows. Why?

“Bad dudes,” as Donald Trump phrases the matter, do come among us. And so do doctors and nurses and professors and honest aspiring workers. The question becomes how to sort them out: to keep out the worst and bring in the best, bearing in mind the nation’s, and the economy’s, absorptive capacities.

Inevitably sentimentalism rears its gray and intellectually deficient head. Emma Lazarus’ famous line — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — is there always for hurling at people who suggest the need for common sense in selecting refugees and immigrants. The tag “dreamers” was dreamt up by someone in the Obama White House to sentimentalize the younger breed of immigrant. How a single word can do justice to a class numbering in the millions is an elusive point.

The agonies involved in crafting immigration policy produce categorical reactions: let ’em all in or keep ’em all out. Trump pushed the latter policy during the late campaign, unwisely advocating the round-up and expulsion of illegal stayers and the blocking, by means of a border wall, of our presently largest immigrant class — Mexicans. That so many voters thrilled to such shoddy ideas shows how eagerly we grasp for the elusive handle calculated to solve our problem at a stroke.

Wednesday, apparently, will bring another executive order shutting down or restricting the refugee flow from the Middle East: more in fulfillment of campaign pledges than in hopeful implementation of a strategy for distinguishing bad dudes from good guys.

What Americans should get used to is that the immigration problem has no logical end — any more than does the problem of keeping America prosperous and free. The best way of repelling would-be immigrants would be, through government policy, to render America approximately as attractive as Russia. Has Russia an immigrant problem? None of which one is aware. What it has is instability, corruption, paranoia, lawlessness, declining population, and a shrinking economy. Just where you’d like to live, work, and raise a family… yes?

America’s 21st century challenge is to maintain — preferably to enlarge, through government renunciations — the freedoms that thrill human hearts, and not just American hearts.

Which merely enlarges the problem of illegal entry? In a way. More to the point, it sharpens the need for better enforcement of existing immigration laws. And for policies of assimilation, an old-fangled concept whose rebirth and recrudescence would go far toward smoothing down the jagged edges of immigration policy.

Those who come, successfully, to America need to become American as quickly and thoroughly as possible: singing “God Bless America”; growing fluent in English; listening to Gershwin; revering George Washington; watching John Ford movies; memorizing “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…”; imbibing in the classroom American ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Such a very old-fashioned program isn’t likely to set Elizabeth Warren’s, or ol’ Bernie’s, hearts aflutter. I hope that isn’t the point. The point, I hope, is how to make America a true home for all who would live here, from sea to shining sea.

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