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A 21st-Century Ellis Island

By April 2, 2012

Like the ebb and flow of the tide, the illegal-immigration issue comes and goes as a hot-button topic. Just compare, for example, how prevalent immigration was in policy debates in 2004 and 2008—and how heated those debates became—with how low it rates in the 2012 presidential campaign. This is largely a function of America’s weak economy, which has made the United States less attractive to immigrants looking for short-term work or a long-term address. In fact, immigration levels have actually fallen in recent years. There are 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the country today, down from 12 million in 2007. But just like the tide, the challenges and tensions created by illegal immigration will return as soon as the economy heats up. In other words, the time for building a 21st-century immigration system is now—and it’s long-overdue.

 

First things first: Immigration is not the problem. Ours is a nation of immigrants—each new wave of immigrants serving as a wellspring for our country, a reminder of our roots and history, a surge of growth and dynamism. All told, America’s foreign-born population stands at 36.7 million—or about 11.5 percent of the overall population—but just 16 million of those immigrants are naturalized (more on that below).

 

To put those numbers in perspective, Census Bureau statistics tell us that in 1890, America’s foreign-born population was 15 percent of the population; in 1900, it was 13.5 percent of the overall population; in 1930, it was 11.5 percent of the population. In other words, today’s immigration numbers may be high, but the percentage is well under the highs the last 125 years.

 

Even so, high immigration levels are worrisome to some Americans. But consider the alternatives: living in a country to which no one wants to migrate, or living in a country that is aging and dying due to low immigration levels.

 

Immigration into Russia, for instance, has fallen from 1.2 million to just 185,000. As a result, Russia is withering away. Researchers with RAND conclude that by the middle of this century, the transcontinental, multi-ethnic empire built by the czars will be populated by fewer than 100 million people—down from 145 million today. By 2050, China will be losing some 20 million people every five years. Similarly, Japan and Europe are rapidly aging, lacking the immigration levels and birth rates to reverse the trend. But America’s population growth rate outpaces Europe’s, Japan’s and China’s—and this is largely related to immigration.

 

Although immigration is a good thing, illegal immigration is not. It undermines respect for the law, eats away at America’s unity, strains public agencies, distorts the labor market and even exposes American citizens to security threats, as evidenced by Iran’s plot to subcontract the assassination of a Saudi diplomat to a Mexican cartel—and by Mexico’s bloody drug war. As Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano recently conceded, “We have, for some time, been thinking about what would happen if, say, al Qaeda were to unite with the Zetas” drug cartel.

 

That explains why securing the border and deterring illegal immigration must be the primary focus of any reform effort.

 

Regrettably, the “secure border initiative,” which envisioned the use of cameras, radar and high-tech sensors to staunch the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico, was recently cancelled. And the surge of National Guard troops to border areas, which began in 2006, is being phased out this year.

 

The importance of securing the border cannot be overstated. After all, it only stands to reason that the easier it is to come across the border illegally, the less likely it is that immigrants will choose legal avenues of immigration.

 

If/when Washington decides it’s ready to secure the border, the American people then will be able to focus on mainstreaming the illegal immigrants who are here by offering a path to citizenship or offering them a trip back home.

 

For those who enter the country illegally, any path to citizenship must include proof that the immigrant has foresworn allegiance to another country as well as some sort of penalty. Even if America’s immigration system is imperfect and slow, it doesn’t give immigrants license to enter the country illegally. No matter how hard-working he is, no matter how sincere her desire to live the American dream, the very first act of an illegal immigrant entering this country is—by definition—to violate U.S. law. If the law means anything, if there is to be justice for those who enter the country legally, there must be a penalty for entering illegally.

 

To bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and mainstream them into America’s civic life, we could benefit from relearning what worked in the past.

 

From 1892-1954, some 12 million people entered America through the gateway of Ellis Island. In his history of Ellis Island, Keepers of the Gate, Thomas Pitkin writes that when Frederic Howe became commissioner of Ellis Island, his goal was “to have immigrants well started on their way to becoming good American citizens before they left the island.” Toward that end, Howe set up partnerships with local school boards to teach English to arriving immigrants, provided what one magazine called “a beginner’s class in American citizenship” and endeavored to “Americanize the immigrant.”

 

Ellis Island’s lifecycle was a function of demand. It came into existence because of the demand created by European migration into the U.S., which almost always culminated at the ports of New York. Today, with the bulk of immigrants emanating from Mexico and entering along the U.S. southern border, perhaps it makes sense to create a constellation of 21st-century Ellis Islands at high-volume entry points and in areas where immigrant populations are concentrated. Abandoned military bases could serve as immigration centers, where immigrants could be evaluated, provided short-term accommodations, instructed in English and U.S. civics, set on a path toward full citizenship and “well started on their way to becoming good American citizens.”

 

That brings us back to naturalization. Regrettably, our naturalization system is not living up to the tried-and-true methods that once transformed the “huddled masses” into American citizens. According to the Census Bureau, only 44 percent of the foreign-born population is naturalized today—down from 50 percent in 1980, which was down from 63 percent in 1970, which was down from 78 percent in 1950. This is leading to what Theodore Roosevelt once described as “hyphenated Americanism”—and ultimately to balkanization.

 

TR worried about America becoming “a tangle of squabbling nationalities” and viewed naturalization—embracing America, learning English, gaining an appreciation for American history and civics—as vital to America’s health. “When I refer to hyphenated Americans,” he explained, “I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all. Americanism is a matter of the spirit and of the soul.”

 

The words are just as true—and just as applicable—a century later.

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