LOS ANGELES — Among the charges leveled against King George III on July 4, 1776, in the Declaration of Independence was this one:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Land.”
So it was ever thus here in the New World. The immigration debate goes on 234 years later. In 1776, there were a little over 2 million people in Great Britain’s American colonies. More were needed to fill the land and grow the economy. Since then, the land of the free has alternately welcomed and despised immigrants — depending on whether we needed their work, and on where they came from.
Truth be told, when the Founding Fathers were lobbying for more immigration, they really meant white Protestant Anglo-Saxons, people like them. Benjamin Franklin, in 1751, wrote in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind”:
“… There are suppos’d to be now upwards of One Million English Souls in North-America. … This Million doubling, suppose but once in 25 Years, will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water. What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land! What Increase of Trade and Navigation! What Numbers of Ships and Seamen! We have been here but little more than 100 Years, and yet the Force of our Privateers in the late War, united, was greater, both in Men and Guns, than that of the whole British Navy in Queen Elizabeth’s Time. …
“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors (Germans) be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?”
Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of the Declaration, added:
“(Immigrants from foreign monarchies) will infuse into (our American legislation) their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”
To be fair, Franklin later modified his views (somewhat) and Jefferson, as president, purchased French-speaking Louisiana to double the size of our country. The Founding Fathers, thank goodness, were realists who did what they had to do to build the great United States. The pattern of all that was obvious and often disturbing. Among the more dramatic of the country’s economic and political ventures was to bring in hundreds of thousands of low-paid Chinese peasants to build intercontinental railroads, deny them citizenship (in 1882) and try to send them back home.
Time marched on and we needed new labor, welcoming (economically) and rejecting (socially and politically) Germans, Irish, Slavs, Italians, Jews, Orientals, Latinos, South Asians. And African-Americans. And in each case we tried to get rid of them when they were no longer so useful. Some went back, happily, appalled and frightened by America’s crazed 24/7 work ethic and lack of family values. Even now, when you talk to the big guys of Silicon Valley they tell you that half the skilled Indians who come here to work decide to go home for family life, as Italians did a hundred years ago.
President Obama hit some of those themes in his speech last Thursday at American University, saying:
“Being an American is not a matter of blood or birth. It’s a matter of faith. … Anybody can help us write the next chapter in our history.”
I agree with that, even though, like the young Franklin, each wave of ethnic immigrants has tended to try to keep out newcomers. But they keep coming and will continue to do so. We are more than a nation of immigrants. We are a nation made by immigrants, foreigners who were needed for their labor and skills — and youth — but were often hated because they were not like us until they were us.
The original article can be read here.