As Americans today, we’re struggling on the horns of a dilemma.
On the one hand, we believe in the beatitudes of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
On the other hand, we confront the brutalities of a racist president demanding a wall or fence 30 feet tall along our Mexican border and threatening to close the border, lock, stock and barrel.
So what about the huddled masses? And what can we do for them?
Are the thousands huddled at our southern border so different from the immigrants of old? My wife’s family came from Ireland during the great famine, the starving time. Were your ancestors perhaps Italian, Greek, Polish, French or Asian? We all came from somewhere else.
No matter what they were in the “old country,” our ancestors found great prejudice here. A professor of mine long ago saw factory signs when he was young that read: “No Irish Wanted.” Even when I was a boy, I can remember working men joking, “How many Polish guys does it take to change a light bulb?”
Yet, as you know, those immigrants brought us great benefits and strengths. Many of the cousins in my wife’s family tree became priests, even monsignors.
And it is so today. Of the 122 Americans who won Nobel Prizes between 2000 and 2018, an actual 34 were immigrants. Four of the five Americans who won the great Nobel honor in 2016 were born outside of this country. Of the 41 Fortune 500 companies created since 1985, eight had immigrant founders.
Immigrants are not the “animals” President Trump says they are.
Yet many serious thinkers wonder how many new people we can take. Four million people right now whose immigration petitions have been approved for entry to our country stand waiting to be admitted. In 30 years, immigrants will help swell our population past 400 million, and, as David Frum, himself an immigrant, points out, “Nobody is seriously planning for such population growth — building the schools and hospitals these people will need, planning for the traffic they will generate.”
One of the hardest aspects of our dilemma is this: Too little immigration, and we will stall our country out of the modern world. Like many nations around the globe, our native-born citizens aren’t bearing enough children to keep America growing. “But,” says Frum in this month’s Atlantic Magazine, “if we invite too many immigrants through our doors, or the wrong kind, we may over-stress our social-insurance system — and possibly upend our democracy.”
One plan to balance the scales might be based on choice. We could look at immigrants’ skills and offer skilled immigrants our visas on the condition that they would work and raise their families in areas of our country where our population is declining. U.S. towns and cities would also get to choose. Communities could decide whether to invite skilled immigrants to settle with them; and prospective immigrants could decide whether to join the communities inviting them.
What we do, and how we choose, will shape the future that will, in its turn, shape us.