Immigration: Balancing the Pragmatic and Idealic

By James Hanmer

There are few words more indelibly attached to the American myth than those so eloquently put by Emma Lazarus in her 1883 sonnet, “The New Colossus,” in which she writes, “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words are now immortalized in bronze for all casual New York City tourists to pore over perfunctorily as they shuffle through the Statue of Liberty museum. Yet, they are worth a closer look, not only for the poetically inclined, but for those considering the United States’ immigration policies in 2019.

In the modern era, most substantive debate on immigration (which unfortunately seems increasingly hard to come by) is centered around the skills and attributes which the ideal immigrant would posses, and how we should go about screening for these attributes. Many suggest taking a cue from our neighbors to the north and adopting a comprehensive points based system. Others contend that those with a certain amount of capital — generally a substantial amount — to invest in the American economy should be prioritized for citizenship, irrespective of all other considerations. Still others say a potential immigrant’s educational background is of the utmost importance.

PHOTO BY Robert Scott Adams (Wikimedia Commons)

Any of these would be preferable to our current, highly ineffectual, lottery-based system, or to the seemingly diametrically opposed proposals currently offered by the most outspoken members of either major party; namely, porous or open borders from the left, and severely restricted immigration via physical barriers — while not addressing the economic hospitality which attracts illegal immigrants in the first place — from the right.

Granted, fluid borders may be a tenable solution in the not-too-distant future, if global poverty and crime rates have fallen to a sufficient degree that border security is no longer a real concern, but in this era of cartel-dominance and mass lawlessness in Mexico and Central and South America, it is obviously an irresponsible, if not suicidal, proposal. Even to the extent that one could make a valid argument for open borders, it would still be essential to keep track of the identity of every person entering the country, which is obviously not happening currently.

The worst conversations about immigration happening on the right veer into xenophobic and jingoistic territory, wherein skin color is somehow equated with a potential immigrant’s value to American society. Such morally abhorrent notions do not even deserve a refutation. However, these conversations (hopefully) represent a statistically irrelevant portion of those who purport to call themselves conservatives.

Clearly then,

there are not a wealth of solutions on the table, or at least within the overton window, that are satisfactory to Americanized, libertarian sensibilities.

q1That is to say, none of the aforementioned solutions take into account the sentiment espoused in those 14 lines of verse penned by an idealistic poetic a century ago. None are able to sufficiently reconcile the American dream, to reconcile the fact that we truly are a nation of immigrants, with the practical concerns of economic stability, national security, cultural stability, etc.

Fine, then what are some solutions? You may be asking at this point. Very well, they are as follows:

  1. Require all potential immigrants to be conversationally fluent in English within six months of arrival, and literate within one year.
  2. Require all potential immigrants to be able-bodied or minded, so that they will be able to find and secure gainful employment and therefore not rely on government subsidization.
  3. Turn away any potential immigrants with violent criminal history.
  4. Prioritize potential immigrants based on literacy in English first, education or professional training second, and net worth (with higher amounts of wealth being considered more desirable) third.

q2This system could perhaps be described as a modified Ellis Island model, as it places primacy on an individual’s ability to adapt to the American way of life, yet still takes into account education or professional training and wealth as tertiary and quadranary considerations, respectively. Equally as importantly as these criteria, though, is simply streamlining the process to accommodate the greatest sustainable number of immigrants as quickly as possible. Every inefficient cog in the mechanism not only wastes tax dollars, but encourages illegal immigration or false claims of refugee status, which can seem like expedited means of starting a better life.

And what of refugees?

Well, this is where things get complicated. An ideologically libertarian immigration system, such as that laid out above, is incompatible with our current, interventionist foreign policy. This is because our meddling in the affairs of politically unstable states, most prominently in Latin America in the past, and in the Middle East currently, creates a surplus of refugees, many of whom naturally seek asylum in the United States. To implement a sustainable amnesty program, at least in good conscious, the United States must also adopt a non-interventionist foreign policy. Of the current candidates running for president, Tulsi Gabbard seems quite good in this respect.


As far as border security is concerned, a wall may be beneficial if built on all federally owned lands on the United States-Mexico border, though the use of eminent domain to non-consensually seize private property for this purpose would, of course, be unconscionable. That being said, even if a wall were to be erected along the entirety of our southern border, which it almost certainly never will, constant surveillance of the border would still be necessary. Perhaps more crucially, cities, municipalities, or locales which declare themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants must comply with federal authority. An integral part of the American ethos, especially economically, is fairness, the open access to opportunity, which is corrupted by these insubordinate jurisdictions, since they allow individuals to essentially ‘cut in line’.

Going forward, any fruitful steps taken by those looking to work through our immigration debacle will be achieved through rational, civil argumentation. The media’s constant fear-mongering and unwillingness to foster any kind of productive dialogue with their political adversaries, and congress’s unwillingness to compromise, are the two biggest roadblocks standing in the way of solution.
James Hammer is a student at the University of Maryland. He places himself in the bottom-right of the political compass, though he’s not to attached to any doctrine other than U.S. Constitutionalism.

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