OPEN THE GATES

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me;
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

VERSE ENGRAVED ON THE BASE OF THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

Until the middle of the 1920s this country followed a general policy of unrestricted immigration; except for some exclusion of Orientals, almost anyone who wanted to come was welcome. From 1905 to 1907 and again in 1910, 1913, and 1914, over a million immigrants a year came. They and their descendants have created a large part of our economic and cultural wealth. It would be hard to find any major public figure willing to argue that this policy was a mistake.

It would be almost as hard to find a major public figure who would advocate a return to that policy. Recent debates have been on how we should allocate and enforce our limited immigration quota among different nationalities, not on whether the quota should exist.

In my opinion, the restriction on immigration is a mistake. We should abolish it tomorrow and reopen the most successful attack on poverty the world has ever seen.

One danger in this policy is that poor immigrants might come with the intent of somehow surviving until they became citizens and then going on welfare. I therefore include in my proposal the condition that new immigrants should face a fifteen year residency requirement before they become eligible for welfare. I also suggest that the federal and state minimum wage laws be altered so as not to cover new immigrants or, better yet, be repealed.

We would receive a vast flood of immigrants, probably more than a million a year, possibly several million. Most would come from Asian and Latin American countries. Most would be poor. Many would work as unskilled labor for the first generation, as did most of the previous immigrants. They would bring with them levels of education, nutrition, and health which would appall our social workers; they would live, by our standards, very badly, but they would live well by their former standards and that is why they would come.

Unrestricted immigration would make us richer, as it has in the past. Our wealth is in people, not things; America is not Kuwait. If a working wife can hire an Indian maid who earned a few thousand dollars a year in India to work for her at twelve thousand dollars a year, and so spend her own time on an eighty thousand a year job, who is worse off?

As long as the immigrants pay for what they use, they do not make the rest of the society poorer. If increased population makes the country more crowded, it does so only because the immigrants produce wealth which is worth more to the owners of land than the land is worth and the immigrants are able to use that wealth to buy the land. The same applies to whatever the immigrants get on the free market; in order to appropriate existing resources for their own uses, the immigrants must buy them with new goods of at least equal value.

The immigrants will get some governmental services for which they will not pay directly. They will also pay taxes. Given present conditions, I see no reason to expect that they will cost government more than government will cost them.

The new immigrants will drive down the wages of unskilled labor, hurting some of the present poor. At the same time, the presence of millions of foreigners will make the most elementary acculturation, even the ability to speak English, a marketable skill; some of the poor will be able to leave their present unskilled jobs to find employment as foremen of work gangs of recent immigrants or front men for immigrant enterprises.

More important than any of these economic effects is the psychological effect on the present poor. They will no longer be the bottom of the barrel and, as liberals have pointed out with some justice, it is where you are, not what you have, which defines poverty. Mobility will be restored; each generation of immigrants will be able to struggle up to a position from which to look down on their successors.

A policy of unrestricted immigration would bring us more than cheap unskilled labor. It would bring a flood of new skills, not least among them the entrepreneurial ability that has made Indian and Chinese emigrants the merchant classes of Asia and Africa. Once the new citizens become familiar with the language and culture of their adopted country, they will probably work their way into the great American middle class just as rapidly as did their predecessors of a century ago.

It is a shame that the argument must be put in terms of the economic or psychological interest of the present generation of Americans. It is simpler than that. There are people, probably many millions, who would like to come here, live here, work here, raise their children here, die here. There are people who would like to become Americans, as our parents and grandparents did.

If we want to be honest, we can ship the Statue of Liberty back to France or replace the outdated verses with new lines about America the closed preserve/That dirty foreigners don’t deserve. Or we can open the gates again.

Welcome, Welcome, Emigrante
To my country welcome home.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE