Recent debates over U.S. immigration policy expose an old fault line in American politics. On the one hand, in keeping with the universally applicable propositions that drive our politics, we are very welcoming to outsiders. The Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank wholly devoted to immigration matters, can comfortably state that America not only has always "encouraged relatively open immigration" but that it "continues to have the most open immigration policy in the world." On the other hand, there are long standing American cautions about "strangers to our laws and customs," as Philadelphia Quakers put it in 1717: their complaint was directed at the "swarms" of Scots-Irish entering the Pennsylvania Colony.
America, then, experiences dueling postures on immigration. The Statue of Liberty celebrates Emma Lazarus' call to the world outside our borders to "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," and nearby on Ellis Island there is a monument to the millions of immigrants who passed through on the way into the U.S. after 1892, most of whom had to demonstrate little more than reasonable good health and a means of support to achieve entry: estimates are that only about 2% were refused. But there is another message as well. The Ellis Island experience is qualified, at the least, by the National Origins Act of 1924, which sharply reduced immigration flow to the U.S. by setting up national quotas for immigrants that were calculated according to a nationality's representation in the U.S. population, the effect of which was to favor European immigrants and almost totally close out Asians: the Act also ended the Ellis Island free entry policy by requiring immigrants to secure visas before entering the country, a policy that remains in place although the Act was replaced in 1965 by a system that focuses on individuals rather than nationalities.
To say that there exist competing American approaches to immigration is not to say that the two sides in the debate get an equal airing. Instead, there seems a tendency publicly, and decidedly in the media, to extol the open borders side of the American experience and to denigrate any questioning of liberal immigration policies as nativist and/or racist. As an editorialist at the Sacramento Bee put it the other day, he was sure that "in two more decades, the illegal aliens about whom nativist politicians howl will be middle-class citizens, and will have voted the nativists out of office." From this point of view, there is no question that American success at incorporating immigrants in the past will be repeated in the future. In the same vein, but from the opposite direction, Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Representative who has been the point man in Congress for the anti-illegal immigration forces, admits to being irked that people call him "a racist or xenophobe" rather than take up the questions he asks about whether the American future is clouded by illegal immigration. Instead of turning on such questions, we find that the public debate on immigration turns on political tactics and fall-out and on more narrowly focused issues like whether illegal immigrants constrict the job market for citizens, whether they lower pay scales for all workers, whether they unfairly drain money from state and local budgets for education, welfare, and other public services, and, from the other end, whether they are the victims of rapacious American businessmen and whether without them the American economy would founder.
What is unfortunate is that the relative silence on the question of whether there is a limit to the amount of immigration, legal and illegal, even a large heterogeneous country like ours can abide is a lost opportunity for exploring where the country is headed as well as considering the steps that can be taken to keep it on track. Moreover, such silence tends to shield the immigration debate from other ongoing debates about the nation's future. There is, for example, the discussion among social scientists as to whether our romance with diversity and multiculturalism is a cause of decline in the social glue that holds together communities. The existence of such a phenomenonsocial scientists speak of diminishing "social capital"is raised in particular by the political scientist Robert Putnam, who describes a drift in America toward what he calls "bowling alone," a phrase that represents the growing isolation of Americans from one another and a consequent lessening of our civic involvement. Putnam's argument has controversial aspects, but it essentially connects civic decline to our distance from one another and our inability and disinclination to interact, especially where the communal good is concerned. With this, and almost despite itself, his argument intersects with immigration issues. The Los Angeles Times, reporting on a Putnam-prompted Harvard study of the state of American cities, notes, for instance, that there exists a failure in Los Angeles's "civic engagement" that is linked to its "ethnic diversity." The latter, of course, is a function of the city's having become the virtual epicenter of the immigration earthquake: according to the study, Los Angeles residents are less trusting of neighbors, coworkers, and other racesSan Diegans were tied on this measurethan residents of almost anywhere else.
There is a long history of thinkers looking at the causes and effects of the phenomenon for which "bowling alone" stands. For most, it is not a reach to tie the problems to the mixing that immigration calls for. Aristotle, for a start, argued that "dissimilarity" causes revolution and that "friendship" based on common goods precedes even justice in bonding a community. Poets weighed in here, as well. Dante is famous for attributing the corruption of his Florence to its "new people." Similarly, there seems general agreement that assimilation is hard but necessary to communal well-being and that "new populations" can change a place, and typically not for the better, in a very short time. It is such issues that we cannot afford to ignore as we face our current problems. It is telling, I think, that the last words of Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy recount how in the 4th century B.C. republican Rome was exceedingly liberal in granting citizenship to "foreigners." The result was that the "new men" caused changes in the government and departures from accustomed and preferable ways: "new men" is Machiavelli's term for Livy's "rabble of the marketplace." Machiavelli then relates how Quintus Fabius earned the title Maximus by sharply constraining the influence of the "new men." The very last thing we hear in the modern book on republicanism, therefore, is how Fabius achieved greatness by checking the effects of a liberal granting of citizenship to foreigners that threatened to "corrupt all Rome." At the very least, this is a lesson that we ought to think about.