The Debate Over Immigration

By: Christina Noto, Expert Access Participant

America is known as the great melting pot of the world; people from all areas of life and of different origins merge together to create the United States. Immigration is a critical part of most American’s pasts, whether it be the pride they take in their relatives travelling to pave the way for their family, or the fact that they themselves are a mixture of many different cultures. Although immigration has a huge impact on our country, it has also been the object of many controversies.

Controversy over immigration is not new to this era. Tensions between immigration and nativism occurred as early as the colonial era. Although the Federalists passed anti-immigration legislation in the 1790s, the Know Nothing Party was the first anti-immigrant party in the country. During the 1840s and 1850s, the Know Nothings were not only anti-foreigner but also anti-Catholic. Many people of the Protestant working class viewed immigrants from Germany and Ireland as an economic threat; they saw their Catholicism as un-American and as a danger to American culture. The Know Nothings wanted to reform immigration policy, increasing residency requirements for citizenship and imposing restrictions on voting and office holding rights. Despite winning political victories in a number of states, many rejected their nativism as being un-American. Abraham Lincoln once said,

“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes (sic), be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics (sic).” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense (sis) of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy (sic).”

Although this nativist wave died, it resurfaced later in the century in an even stronger reaction to the “new immigration,” beginning in the 1880s and continuing until the1920s. The Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota system, limiting the number of people legally allowed to enter this country. Each country was given visas for 2% of its population in the United States at the time of the 1890 census. This act essentially excluded immigration from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, severely limited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, and favored northwestern Europe. During the 1920s nativists feared Bolshevism – also known as the Red Scare. The KKK also reemerged as a result of the increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Civil liberties were often violated and many immigrants were deported based only on suspicions, due to this nativist fear. Similar to the Know Nothing views of Irish and Germans in the 1840s and 50s, the nativists of the 1920s felt that “new immigrants” were incapable of assimilation and a threat to both American democracy and culture.

Today Democrats and Republicans continue to debate how to handle immigration issues. Indeed, immigration reform has been one of the most heavily debated issues in the current campaign. According to Republican Donald Trump’s campaign website, “a nation without borders is not a nation, a nation without laws is not a nation” and “a nation that does not serve its own citizens is not a nation.” He feels that the United States should build a wall between itself and Mexico, and Mexico should pay for it. Trump also believes that the US should return criminals who are illegal immigrants to their native country and hold illegal immigrants instead of releasing them. Not only does he want to reform the system, he also wants to completely change some policies, such as bringing an end to birthright citizenship. Republican Jeb Bush’s main focus is increased border security. He wants the current illegal immigrants pass a background check, learn English, and pay fines and taxes. He plans to crack down on expired visas, and send those who have them back to their country. Other Republican candidates have similar complaints, like earlier generations of nativists, and are calling for increased border control and deportations.

On the other hand, Democrat Hillary Clinton advocates for an ‘ethical’ immigration system and reform. She plans to back President Obama’s executive actions as well as enforce the laws in a ‘humane’ way. Clinton does not want to break up families and she wants to provide a clear path to citizen ship. Unlike Trump she wants to phase out detention centers. Bernie Sanders has similar views to Hillary’s; he wants to keep and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as well as immigration reform that will help migrant workers. He opposes building a fence at the border of the United States and Mexico and has said,

“We are a nation of immigrants. I am the son of an immigrant myself. Their story, my story, our story is a story of America: hard-working families coming to the United States to create a brighter future for their children. The story of immigrants is the story of America, a story rooted in family and fueled by hope. It continues today in families all across the United States.”

Individuals born in foreign counties have founded over twenty five percent of the fastest growing companies in America from 1990 until 2005. The transformation of Silicon Valley can be credited to the Asian Americans that make up over fifty percent of the workforce. There are many examples of hard working immigrants helping the economy. The contributions immigrants make to our culture, economy and society only add to the melting pot that many call the United States. While nativism is central to many campaigns, perhaps politicians need to take a closer look at the positive aspects of immigration.