Who knew when Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus, that immigration would become such a divisive issue in this country? Well, I guess anyone who ever studied American history. Contrary to the elegant words of that sonnet, we have always had trouble with immigration.

I use only the Irish migration to prove the point, but I could include a host of other races, nationalities or religions. Data suggest that almost half of the population of Ireland emigrated to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, many as a result of the potato famine. Many of these embarked on what were called “coffin ships” due to the high numbers of passengers who died enroute.

Those fortunate enough to survive the journey were not all met with open arms. Although many ended up in Boston, their New England reception was typical of the manner they were received elsewhere. Like immigrants before and since, most arrived with few skills, other than those needed for household tasks, like cooking or cleaning. Some possessed just enough skill to work in dark, wretched sweat shops called factories. Desperate for work, many became domestic servants. In the earliest years, many agreed to indentured servitude.

In addition, Irish immigrants had to deal with open bigotry and stereotypes. Mick and Paddy were common monikers used to describe them. During the Civil War, these potato eaters (yet another disparaging term used to describe Irish) became valuable as cannon fodder, allowing the north to recruit numbers vastly larger than the Confederates. Despite their service, following the war, they still were not welcome in decent homes.

This blog cannot begin to describe the bigotry and hate directed against the Irish, indeed against virtually all immigrants. Congress has passed laws barring immigration of communists and Chinese, Asians and illiterate. During the Eisenhower regime, a program commonly and openly referred to as Operation Wetback was employed to hunt down and export illegal Mexicans.

Our refusal to allow new immigrants and our cold reception of those who did come notwithstanding, America has opened its borders and we have collectively opened our arms. Congress has passed laws allowing, indeed encouraging, and welcoming war brides, displaced persons, refugees and those seeking freedom from persecution.

Perhaps, when pressed, we all remember that this country was started by immigrants, those fleeing religious or political persecution; those fleeing famine or disease; those seeking only a better life for their children. Those motivating forces exist today. In making these statements, I do not want to slight our native American neighbors. But even these are said to be descended from ancestors who came from other places.

There can be no question that the issues surrounding immigration today are more complex than they were during the period from the 17th through the 19th century. Our population has grown, and key resources, water and arable land, are more limited. But make no mistake, concerns were no less emotionally charged then than now.

Natives, as third and fourth generation immigrants began to call themselves, feared that newly allowed immigrants would take away jobs. Then and now! They feared that they would lower the standard of living. Then and now! Those who called themselves American felt immigrants were illiterate and greedy and their families clannish. Worse still, natives would soon be outnumbered as these newcomers all bred like rabbits.

Many Americans, removed from immigrant status by more than one or two generations, held these fears and biases then and many of us hold them still.

The debate over immigration reform today revolves around three basic issues. First, who and how many do we let in? Second, how do we keep others from coming of their own accord? Said differently, how do we control our borders? Finally, what do we do with those who are here but are not supposed to be?

Fences Make Good Neighbors

Robert Frost wrote a poem titled Mending Wall in which one neighbor suggests “Good fences make good neighbors.” That seems to be a popular idea with respect to our southern border. In 2006, the debate over construction of a barrier along our Southern border culminated in President Bush signing the Secure Fence Act of 2006. 

Following passage of that measure, which called for construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S – Mexican border, the Reinstatement of the Secure Fence Act of 2008 was passed calling for construction of an additional 700 miles. The “Finish the Fence” amendment, which was not approved, mandated construction of another 353 miles. Something significantly less than the distance authorized has been completed. And the border, running almost 2,000 miles, has only pieces of a fence installed.

Regardless, I have some fencing for sale to anyone who thinks a barrier of any kind, least of all a wall or fence, can stop people from those desperate for a better life from trying to get from one place to another. If you believe this political tripe, then you never saw the Iron Curtain. Now that was a fence!

For a distance approximating 750 miles, the Soviet Union built a system of border defenses between Western and Eastern Europe, creating one of the most heavily guarded zones in the world. In rural areas the barrier comprised double fences made of steel mesh with sharp edges, while urban areas were cordoned off with twin concrete walls. These defenses were supplemented with electric fencing, ditches and vehicle traps.

For most of the distance, just as proscribed for our border fence, the curtain comprised two separate but equal fences. The space between the dual barriers varied, sometimes as wide as half mile. The area between the walls was often mined. Sensors were used. Lookout towers were placed at frequent intervals, manned by armed sentries. The area was heavily patrolled 24/7 by armed patrols employing dogs. On the communist side, the barrier was further protected by a border zone, for which entry required a special pass, and for which trespassing was often paid for with one’s life.

But the Iron Curtain wasn’t limited to a physical presence. The Soviets employed an even more effective deterrent. Death! Unauthorized crossing of the border risked being shot by guards operating under the term schießbefehl (“order to fire”). Did the Iron Curtain stop illegal crossings? No. Tens of thousands crossed, or died trying. It slowed them down to be sure but, considering the measures taken by the communists as compared to those employed with our “fence”, one has to ask, is building a fence the best strategy?

Nature’s barriers don’t even work. Remember the Irish. Some suggest 30% of those attempting to make their way across the Atlantic died in the attempt. What about Cubans, crossing the shark infested Florida straits in little more than canvas or rubber rafts? No one knows but it has been suggested that tens of thousands have died trying to reach our “golden door.”

When there are those who believe their life is not worth living under existing circumstances, neither Impassable mountains, stormy oceans, armed guards with orders to shoot nor even the likelihood of death can serve as a deterrent.  A fence?

We have to secure the border. That much is certain. Any immigration policy that does not include a secure border is, on its face, ineffective. We should maximize the use of patrols, satellites, electronic monitoring, and manned check points. And, as a part of comprehensive reform, we must not allow those who violate our borders to have any chance at living or working in the U.S no less gaining citizenship. If someone’s first act is to disrespect, indeed to disregard our laws, then there should be no place here for that person.

Our immigration system has been a confusing mess for many years. Most generally agree with that assertion. If true, then we have to deal with those who are here now illegally. I think any effective immigration reform plan must include three provisions. First, we have to develop a way for those here now illegally, assuming they have not committed a violent crime, to gain legal access and residency. Second, this process MUST be based on a voluntary identification. They must turn themselves in to INS. Getting "caught" would not count.

Third, after they have reported themselves, their identity must be recorded. A criminal background check must be conducted to verify they have not committed a felony. Then and only then would they be issued credentials. Failure to voluntarily comply will be met with the same response as that given to those who violate our border. This must be a “one bite at the apple” policy.

The bottom line is that we have to be willing to enforce our borders. Absent that commitment, nothing else matters. While it sounds harsh, going forward, those who are in the United States illegally cannot be afforded the social benefits of those who are here legally, whether citizens or legal aliens.

The following is excerpted from comments attributed to President Eisenhower.

It is a manifest right of our Government to limit the number of immigrants [and] to set reasonable requirements on the character…of the people who come to share our land and our freedom.

If we are honest with each other and with ourselves, the major issue, aside from the human frailty of racial, religious and national heritage biases, is the fact that, in recent years, the increase of social welfare, which is generally made available to newly immigrated persons, is disturbing to many people. If we have a hard time caring for those already here, how is it that we can open our arms to everyone else? It’s a fair question.

My first suggestion in trying to solve this issue is to tone down the rhetoric. I also borrow from Eisenhower and suggest that, as we debate this topic, we should all remember an equally manifest fact.

We are—each of us— immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants.

Immigrants have brought with them some delightful beverages. Included among them are Corona, Tsingtao and Henninger Kaiser Pilsner. I think I will venture forth and enjoy one.

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AuthorDoug Spiker