Immigration Restrictions Should Treat People As Individuals, Not Groups

Private discrimination based on national origin has been prohibited in the United States since 1965, yet the United States government continues to discriminate based on this very principle in its immigration laws. There might be good reasons to exclude a particular foreigner, that he is a danger the health and safety of Americans, or (perhaps) that he is likely to become a public charge. But if this is the case, the government should restrict based on these criteria, not simply based on where the individual was born, which cuts against America’s core values.

Compare the current immigration (and trade) restrictions to the South’s Jim Crow-era segregation. Jim Crow functions in almost exactly the same way. Both are systems of social exclusion based on group characteristics. Segregation was based on race. Immigration and trade restrictions are based on national origin, two criteria that the victims of these systems had no control over.

Not only is immigration in theory the same as segregation, but it is the same in origin. The quotas that limit the number of immigrants who may enter into the U.S. arose from the same bald-faced racism that justified Jim Crow for decades. Those who closed America’s doors in the 1920s were led by eugenicists: progressive social Darwinists who believed in a racial hierarchy and feared immigrants would “pollute” America’s gene pool. In his influential 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant argued that “immigrant laborers are now breeding out their masters and killing by filth and by crowding as effectively as by sword.”

The congressman, Rep. Albert Johnson, who wrote the 1924 bill which set quotas on the number of immigrants from each European country, was the honorary president of the Eugenics Research Institute, and in his Congressional report that justified the bill, he quoted a State Department official describing Eastern Europeans, the primary targets of the legislation, as “unassimiable, filthy, and often dangerous.” Restrictionists still often speak in these terms, but restrictionists dare no longer to explicitly use eugenicists’ discredited ideas of a racial hierarchy — even while their policy continues to enforce one.

On this point, they are just like their segregationist predecessors who by the 1960s argued that racial exclusion was necessary not because blacks were inherently inferior, but because as The National Review argued at the time, the South had “the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to affect a genuine cultural equality between the races.” In other words, whites were not excluding blacks out of any racism, but to save civilization for blacks own sake, so that it could survive until blacks were ready for inclusion. Obviously, this was an argument adapted to an era that had rejected racism as a basis for public policy: civilized rhetoric to defend an uncivilized policy.

Immigration restrictionists play the same game. Today, they also have been forced to adopt new arguments for exclusion based on national origin, even though their fundamental position has not changed. They know their view is fundamentally at odds with America’s founding maxim, “all men are created equal,” and so they invent facts and distort economic reality to condemn foreigners for every economic and social ill, playing on people’s natural fears of outsiders and the unknown. Just as the segregationist belief that blacks’ social inclusion would destroy civilized society was wrong, the belief that immigrants will destroy it is equally wrong. The inclusion of immigrants and blacks into society is the destruction of civilized society — it is the extension of it.

Please note, however, that economic inclusion — the right to live and work in the U.S. — is not the same as political inclusion — citizenship. Citizenship entails a list of rights and responsibilities that, because they affect everyone, should be closely guarded, but social and economic exclusion should be based solely on good cause, not group characteristics like race, gender, religion, or national origin. There might be good reasons to oppose the social inclusion of certain individuals, but blanket discrimination against foreigners opposes the truly universal conception of human rights on which America was founded.