The New Immigration: An Exchange

The New Immigration: An Exchange

Otis L. Graham, Jr.
Illegal Immigration and the Left

Immigration policy is a subject most Americans would rather avoid; it has to do with keeping people out of the country, and in a nation of immigrants that is a thought painful to contemplate.

On any complex issue, one would expect Americans of liberal or radical inclination to take a variety of positions. Yet on the issue of illegal immigration, ever since World War II, there is a remarkable and historically unprecedented unanimity within the American left: immigration is a “social problem” that is not a welcome subject of discussion. If the issue is forced, the predictable stand is to favor porous if not open borders—a position, if not a reflex, with deep roots in our history, though largely unexamined since the days before World War I. We have, of course, not forgotten the old nativist movements that so embittered our politics. History appears to teach us that when it is asserted that immigration is a problem, groups learn to hate. Restrictionist ideas in 19th- and early 20th-century America derived from the selfish, reactionary, and racist side of the national mind. Restriction, then, is assumed to be invariably a disreputable sentiment—let it go away! But when immigration-law reform cannot be avoided, as in 1952 or ‘65,1eft-of-center people tend to oppose governmental limitation, favoring a sort of marketplace solution to which they would normally not incline.

We on the left have forgotten that this was not always so: socialists once debated socialists on the limitation of immigration, and took varied principled stands. I argue here that the restrictionist case should now make a much stronger appeal to liberals and radicals than it has over the last half-century, and that a perhaps painful discussion is in order.