In the first part of this series, a post called Un nuevo nacimiento de la libertad, I promised a defense of this forum's frequent defense of an open immigration policy for the United States. This post fulfills that pledge.
John F. Kennedy famously described the United States as A Nation of Immigrants. Yet the foreign-born population of the United States has never exceeded 15 percent. This 15 percent threshold extends deep into the colonial history of North America; from 1675 onward, the native-born population of this country (or the colonized portion of what would become this country) has consistently remained at 85 percent or higher. In absolute terms, there has never been a question of the capacity of the United States to absorb newcomers. America has done so throughout its history. There can be no reasonable doubt that the United States' openness to newcomers has distinguished it -- almost uniformly for the better -- from every other country.
So why has immigration become such a controversial political topic? Because a very significant portion of immigrants stem from a single region (Latin America) and in particular a single country (Mexico) distinct in language and culture from that of the native-born majority. Because those immigrants are, on balance, poorer and less educated. Because they are perceived as net drains on social services, even though the evidence indicates that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, are net fiscal contributors.
But most of all, immigration has become a political flash point because it serves as the repository of all cultural and economic anxiety over globalization. Of the many ideas with which economists and their politically empowered patrons have used to experiment on human populations, one stands as a clear winner. It is free trade. Most economic propositions are contestable. The theory of comparative advantage is not one of them.
The trouble, of course, is that overall gains from free movement in goods, ideas, and persons have not flowed even throughout the economy. Globalization, to put it coarsely, has its losers. In the United States, there is no question who those losers are. They are the least educated, least mobile members of the native-born population. Demagoguing the immigration issue resonates with this group. Or so certain exploiters of fear have concluded. From Lou Dobbs to J.D. Hayworth, there is no shortage of journalists and politicians willing to leverage these fears. If American politics demonstrates anything, it is the proposition that no message, however offensive, goes unexpressed as long as some politician, somewhere, perceives an opportunity for partisan gain:Yes, Vernon Robinson occupies a lunatic fringe in American politics, but the fact that a major political party allowed a candidate to wage a campaign this vile, in an eminently contestable district (North Carolina 13), during a season that in retrospect may have realigned American politics for years to come, speaks volumes. Had Joseph Conrad adopted Spanish instead of English as his language of choice, that volume might be called El corazón de las tiniebras.
Let me translate this in unequivocal terms. Xenophobia is the last redoubt of openly expressed racism in America. Opposition to immigration by any means and the demonization of immigrants have occupied an emotional vacuum created by the rightful condemnation of other forms of overt racism. Anti-immigration demagoguery exposes America's new heart of darkness.
America's place in the world changed on September 11, 2001. It has arguably changed even more in the ensuing five years, and not for the better. With astonishing speed, the United States has squandered the goodwill of the global community. We Americans are locked in nothing less than a struggle for the soul of the world. It is a familiar contest. For the second half of the continuous 75 Years' War (as future historians undoubtedly will call the military and political conflicts of 1914 through 1989), the United States engaged another superpower in a comparable fight.
Lest we forget, America won the Cold War. As Mary Dudziak (author of the new blog, Legal History), argued in Cold War Civil Rights, the United States desperately needed to set its own legal house in order before it could defeat the Soviet Union with rhetorical, political, and emotional weapons that ultimately proved more effective than its military arsenal. Civil rights at home enabled victory in the Cold War.
Today we stand in a similar battle for the hearts of the world. How we treat individuals who seek nothing but an opportunity to become Americans by choice sends a message to the contested and contestable portions of that world. Por amor de Dios, enviamos el mensaje de bienvenido a todas las naciónes y todos los pueblos del mundo. Porque no podemos perdir la guerra más importante de nuestra edad.