Should America Close the Golden Door?
America has, is, and will always be a nation of immigrants: the great melting pot. In the
years that have passed since Emma Lazarus’ poem was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty ?the
golden door? has seen times when it was open wide and times when it was closed shut to almost
all immigrants. Many people tend to look at the present immigration problems as a purely modern
dilemma. The truth is America has always struggled with the issue of immigration, both legal and
illegal. Changing times however make it imperative that our government re-examine and adjust
today’s immigration laws to today’s standards. Those standards however are not easily defined.
All too often the issue of immigration is used as a political tool or is lost in heated moral debates.
In any discussion about immigration you will have those who claim it is good for our nation and
those who claim it is ruining the nation. More often than not the bottom line in any debate of this
sort is money; will more or less immigration mean more or less money for those already in
America. The moral debates come down to a question of who we are as a nation and how we
want the rest of the world to perceive Americans. If this great country was forged and built by
immigrants passing through ?the golden door? , then how can this same country turn away new
immigrants. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty invites all to enter, yet not all are allowed to
enter. Immigration has become a selective process with many gray areas. Now Americans are
faced with a new dilemma; the nation must decide not whether it is willing to accept new
immigrants, but whether it can afford new immigrants.
All new immigrant, both legal and illegal must be considered in this equation. Congress
can attempt to ease the burden of legal immigration by passing restrictive laws and only allowing
in those who they believe will become self-sufficient. Congress must also find a way to slow the
flow of illegal immigration by enforcing the laws already in place. What this paper will attempt to
do is bring the immigration issue into perspective. America most certainly has immigration
problems but they will not be fixed by eliminating immigration all together. In fact, America will
never totally eliminate immigration, because no matter how tightly the door is closed some illegal
immigrants will get through. As long as America continues to be seen as a nation of prosperity,
opportunity, and freedom there will be those who wish to come to America. Immigrants have
always come to America looking for a better life and Americans are always forgetting that their
forefathers were once looking for that same life. As a nation there must be a decision on whether
immigration is an issue of conscience or economics.
History of Immigration Laws
Though most Americans see immigration as a modern problem it has been heavily debated
since the 19th century. Throughout most of America’s history immigration was seen as a natural
process that benefited the nation (Divine 2). Until the 1890’s there were no clearly defined
policies on immigration. During this time the country started questioning the economic benefits of
more immigrants, so things have note changed in that respect. In May 1921, the first bill in
American history restricted European immigration and created the quota system (Divine 5). This
turn toward restriction could be justified by the downward turn in the economy. Who could argue
for more immigrants when the nation’s own citizens couldn’t find work. The slowing economy
and the ?spirit of intense nationalism? in the United States at this time made immigration a hot
topic (Divine 23).
After the depression hit everyone was in agreement that there was a ?need to limit
immigration,? of course the extent of those limits were not easily agreed upon (Divine 77). World
War II brought with it a new set of immigrants, and eventually the passing of the Displaced
Persons Act of 1947. This allowed immigrants, displaced by the war to enter the country above
quota limits (Divine 128). Since then our legislators have been faced with numerous proposals
concerning immigration, too many in fact to mention. Those mentioned above are significant in
the fact that they show a definite shift in America’s attitude toward immigration. Since the 1920’s
immigration has not been seen as a natural process, but a process that could overwhelm a nation if
Current Immigration Laws and Issues
As of this time there are no less than fifty proposed bills in Congress that can affect
immigration, which proves that this is an ongoing battle with little chance of ending. In recent
years the immigration policy has found itself in a state of flux; going back and forth between pro
and anti immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 is one of the more current policies to regulate
immigration. This policy sets a flexible annual limit on immigration at a rate of 700,000
immigrants per year until 1994 when the number will drop to 675,000. This number of course
does not include refugees and those seeking asylum (?Immigration…?). If these numbers seem
staggering one must take into account the estimated ?300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants?
added to the nations population each year (Suro 8). In the mid-90’s there was a shift in America’s
immigration policy to ?close the doors and end the current era of immigration? (Suro 8). In fact in
President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Message he said: ?It is wrong and ultimately
self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we
have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.? (?Immigration…?)
This attitude led to the Immigration Enforcement Improvements Act of 1995, which was
meant to secure our borders, make deportation of illegal easier, and discourage the employment
of illegal aliens (?Immigration…?). In essence this was a proposal to enforce the laws already in
place. This was a strong attempt by the government to limit illegal immigration while facilitating
legal immigration. As of now, due to the lack of credible data, it is unclear if this legislation
worked. What is clear is the continuing struggle to find a balance in the immigration system. Many
citizens are concerned with such issues as overpopulation, lack of jobs, and the cost to tax payers
if this mass wave of legal and illegal immigrants continues (Castro 198).
America has established such an inherent open heart/open door policy that it seems the
melting pot may be about to boil over. Some estimates put the United States population over
capacity by as much as one-hundred million (Amselle 60). America’s lax attitude toward
overpopulation may have turned to one of ?danger? that must be avoided (Amselle 60). In the
past immigration was somewhat balanced; a good economy meant more immigrants and a slower
economy saw a decrease in immigration (Amselle 60). There are those who feel the United States
has absorbed all the people it can (Amselle 60). Then you have those like Joel Kotkin of the
Progressive Policy Institute who feel that the large numbers of immigrants are ?working age
adults,? that America needs to ?offset the growing number of pensioners? (Amselle 60). Even if
the immigrant population can offset the number of pensioners, the number of resources in the
country will still be divide amongst a much larger population. One must also take into account the
number of illegal immigrants added to the population. They will also be replacing those retiring
pensioners at a lower wage with no taxes or social security payments. America has a large
population of baby boomers and will need working-age persons to fill the void left by their
retirements, but there must be a limit to the number of immigrants we become dependant upon
and a dramatic decrease in illegal immigrants. During the 1980’s when all other industrialized
nations were making restrictions on immigration America’s doors were open and now the nation
begins the daunting task of closing those doors (Briggs 5). There is some concern that closing the
doors could ?heighten the feeling that the nation is under siege? (Suro 15). Overpopulation is in
itself a world wide issue but is not undisputed as a cause for concern in America.
A lack of jobs is a major concern for most. Will there be enough jobs for everyone? Can
our economy support it’s own citizens, immigrants, and illegal aliens. America is experiencing a
period of economic health, but history shows that this upward economy will not last indefinitely.
The working poor are concerned that illegal immigrants may be holding down wages and taking
the few unskilled jobs that are available in some areas (Kirschten 16). These are legitimate fears
that call into question the governments ability to regulate immigration. Tax paying citizens are
also concerned that the tax dollars they pay each year are being used to help educate illegal
immigrants and not those who are rightfully in this country (Amselle 60). When there is a large
population of immigrants in an area citizens tend to view them in a hostile manner because of the
perceived notion that illegal immigrants are using resource meant for legal residents (Bean 204).
In reality illegal immigrants have never been eligible for welfare and other public services (Castro
Benefits of Immigration
Immigrants help to relieve our nation’s labor shortage. The truth is that due to a decline in
the fertility rate in the United States some leading demographers predict that without substantial
immigration America will have a shrinking population (Briggs 127). A shrinking population would
mean a higher cost of living and a slow decline in the economy. This alone does not diffuse the
alarm of overpopulation but it does give a different view of the situation. Take into account the
agricultural sector of American society which is heavily dependant upon immigrant workers,
because non-immigrants are less willing to work on the farms (Mont 12). In terms of legal
immigrants, America must find a way to make immigration work for the good of the nation as
well as the best interest of the immigrants (Briggs 240). In the end a young immigrant population
may very well save such programs as social security by increasing the number of workers in the
market (Mont 18). These are all economic benefits, but the diversity the United States gains is a
priceless commodity that future generations of Americans will need to succeed in a growing
international job market.
The Cost of Immigration
The United States immigration policy does not allow people to immigrate if they are
expected to be dependant on public services. Yet in 1993 approximately 12% of the 5.9 million
recipients of Supplemental Security Income benefits were immigrants, even though they only
account for about 5% of the population (Mont 15). Statistics such as these add to the growing
anti-immigrant sentiment among American citizens. This anti-immigrant attitude was clearly
reflected in 1994 with the passing of California’s Proposition 187. Actions such as Proposition
187 can create a very hostile and possibly dangerous atmosphere for all immigrants. What it really
boils down to is a belief among Americans that immigrants simply cost too much. Immigration
means increased job competition, more money spent on welfare, and increased competition for
educational funding. Although Proposition 187 was aimed at curbing the health care cost of illegal
immigrants, most Americans simply see it as an immigrant issue and pay little attention to details
concerning the status of those immigrants actually receiving benefits. Many believe that immigrant
workers, both legal and illegal, hold down wages in low paying jobs. Especially in areas such as
California’s Central Valley where most of the workers are immigrant and up to 40% are believed
to be illegal (Kirschten 16).
The main concern with illegal immigration is the strain it can place upon the economy.
There are also concerns about the nations sovereignty, if America can’t control it’s borders then
America may not be perceived as a sovereign nation (Mont 16). Illegal immigration is not only
bad for the nation, but for the illegal immigrant as well. The fact that illegal workers have no
recourse in the law makes them susceptible to unscrupulous business people who will exploit
them simply to make money. The supply of illegal workers has created a part of the United States
business economy that works outside of government regulations (Suro 34). Illegal immigrants
face lower wages, unsafe work environments, and a lack of benefits. This in turn keeps wages low
and makes it difficult for legal residents to get these jobs. Most employers are looking at the
bottom line and illegal immigrant workers mean less wages and benefits cost, which add up to
more profit. The government of course passed laws in 1986 making it unlawful to hire illegal
immigrants; then they failed to fund the enforcement of these same laws (Suro 32).
In reality illegal aliens make up less than ?2% of the population,? but what seems like an
insignificant number of people has had great impact on our nation (Suro 50). The irony of the
entire situation is that while the nation is calling for an end to illegal immigration, no one is
forcing illegal immigrants to leave (Suro 35). While illegal aliens violate the law with their
presence, we guarantee their children access to public education and emergency medical care
(Suro 35). This is just one example of the many contradictions in America’s immigration policies.
These contradictions are what lead to the frustration many people feel toward a system that is no
longer in control. Many citizens, especially the working poor, feel that illegal immigrants
sometimes receive more benefits. The reality of illegal immigration is that it has been an
increasingly difficult problem to solve. For three decades now our government has been trying to
find ways to alleviate the number of illegal immigrants in the nation. One attempt was the
Amnesty program in the mid-90’s for those who had been in the country since 1992 (Suro 40).
Suro states that this covered only about 60% of the illegal population and drew much debate from
California. Which is ironic seeing as how California is often at the forefront of the campaign
against illegal immigration. Illegal immigration has become a familiar part of American society
and will not likely see much improvement in the next millenium.
The Future of Immigration
INS has published a booklet called Strategic Plan: INS 200, Accepting the Challenge,
which outlines their mission and objectives for the coming year. Most of these objectives are the
same as they have always been: facilitate compliance with the law, create disincentives in the
workplace, increase the security of INS documentation, and work with other agencies (U.S.
Immigration…). This isn’t the first time the INS has had good objectives, but it isn’t likely that
they will receive the necessary funding to implement these plans successfully. Our government has
tried to curb the flow of illegal immigrants with such actions as the North American Free Trade
Agreement [NAFTA], which is expected to reduce illegal migration from Mexico (U.S.
Immigration… 5). The problem is the timing of such policies; NAFTA is expected to work only
after a decade in which Mexico can produce the jobs needed.
The INS also reports that by the year 2000, the population of prime labor age in America
will drop by 8.5 million. That is a large loss of labor and can only be offset by the immigrant
population. The key is to make sure that this decrease is offset by a legal immigrant population.
That is what the government attempted to do with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant
Responsibility Act of 1996 (Marley 880). The intent was to cut back on crime, terrorism, and
welfare fraud. They fell short of their intent because the inadvertently clumped all immigrants
together, both legal and illegal (Marley 885).
America will continue to allow immigrants to enter the country for numerous reasons;
such as those who take up a common cause against a foreign foe, as a gesture of shame after
some foreign debacle, for economic reasons, and for purely humanitarian purposes (United
recently we saw our government agree to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees, and financially help
with 20,000 more in Albania. Now 20,000 is a tiny gesture in the big picture, but in a world of
crises how many times can our government afford such gestures. Can America continue to play
the role of the last true hope for the ?huddled masses? of the world?
Illegal immigration must be curbed. If nothing else it is unfair to those who wait for years
to come to America legally. Currently illegal immigrants can choose to leave on their own
meaning they can come back legally if they choose. Our laws say that we can formally deport
these illegal immigrants and bar them from legal entry. Why does our government continue to
create loopholes in the laws they pass. I don’t feel that those enter the country illegally should
have a right to return; if they are willing to break immigration laws they are more likely to break
other laws. What does this policy say to those who lawfully await entry? That in America you’re
only guilty if you’re caught and then only if you don’t agree to leave quietly. The lack of
punishment for illegal migration is one of the reasons behind it’s increase. That however is just my
opinion and the would not disappear even if strict punishments were the norm.
It is clear that the debate and controversy over immigration will not go away anytime in
the near future. What is not clear however is how the nation will fare in the midst of such debate.
In the past Americans were proud to be that one shining hope in the world. They were willing to
accept the tired and poor, but America has changed and immigration must change also. To those
in underdeveloped countries the Statue of Liberty and her invitation to a better life must be hard
to resist. What they don’t see is what lies beyond her golden torch; a country teeming with people
in fierce competition for that elusive dream of a better life. As a student of history and someone
who is proud of my heritage I want to say let them come. Let all who need a better life come to
America and try to build it here. As a realist I know that our country can only support so many
people. There are only so many jobs, so much land for housing, and so forth. Maybe someday in
the near future there will be a balance found between the economics and the humanitarianism. A
balance that will allow those searching for a better life to come to America and know that they
add to our nation’s success. The days of ?give me your tired, your poor? may have to end but our
door should always be open to those longing to work toward a better tomorrow in a land of
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