More than any other country in the world, the US epitomises a country welcoming to immigrants. Its legacy of reaping the boons of immigration, and outsized influence on the world stage are why we so often discuss it on Open Borders, even if we firmly stand behind open borders across the world. In recent years, the US has been setting a bad example for the world on immigration, and we need to set the record straight. Americans today are happy to embrace their immigrant past, but reluctant to face their immigrant future. But these are two sides of the same coin — and the past tells us that American restrictionists’ worst fears have already come to pass — and gone.
Immigrants from Asia, Africa, and above all, Central and Latin America are taking centre stage in the US today. Hispanics especially represent the future of American immigration. As a result, any American can present you with a laundry list of concerns about Hispanic immigration:
- They are low-skilled and poorly educated
- They don’t learn our language
- Their culture is rude, uncouth, and macho
- They are migrating at an immense rate, far too quick for societal or political institutions to adapt
- They bring their own language with them, and unabashedly force American institutions to accommodate their language
- They are either apathetic or outright disloyal to the US, and pose a risk to national security
It is tempting for those on the left to dismiss concerns about immigration as rooted merely in the basest racism, bigotry, and prejudice. I would agree that anyone who has seriously examined the empirical data here will find these concerns to be overblown — even on the rare occasion that there’s a grain of truth to them, the situation is nowhere near as bad as restrictionists typically make it out to be. And it is true that immigration restrictions, especially in the US, have traditionally been founded primarily, if not entirely, on racial prejudice. But these are not reasons to casually dismiss reasonable people’s concerns about immigration today.
Now, for those who really think that, based on that laundry list I laid out above, Hispanic immigration is a major problem in the US and one that needs to be stopped at all costs, I simply say: your concerns, valid as they may be, were anticipated a long time ago. No less an American than founding father Benjamin Franklin expressed precisely the same sentiments about a new cohort of swarthy immigrants threatening to overwhelm the United States:
Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation… Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolben says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so these seem to think themselves not free, till they can feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers.
…now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English…They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings in their own Language, which (though I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts…there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will be also necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say; In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.
Franklin went as far as to accuse these teeming masses of ignorant, uncouth immigrants of treason. When the colonies that would become the US fought the French, these immigrants refused to fight, and publicly argued that it would be better to surrender to the French instead:
…for when the English who were not Quakers, alarmed by the danger arising from the defenceless state of our Country entered unanimously into an Association within this Government and the lower Countries raised armed and Disciplined near 10,000 men, the Germans except a very few in proportion to their numbers refused to engage in it, giving out one among another, and even in print, that if they were quiet the French should they take the Country would not molest them; at the same time abusing the Philadelphians for fitting out Privateers against the Enemy; and representing the trouble hazard and Expence of defending the Province, as a greater inconvenience than any that might be expected from a change of Government.
Yes, the swarthy immigrants Franklin was talking about here were none other than the Germans. (While none of us would describe them as such today, he was quite explicit in his correspondence, describing peoples like the French, Russians, Swedes, and Germans as “swarthy” in complexion.) The early US faced a dramatic influx of a horde of immigrants, all from one particular country and cultural background. Even the most sympathetic immigration advocate would surely agree that at some point, “swamping” creates meaningful and dangerous risks to the established order and institutions of society.
But despite all the dangers he called out, Franklin saw no reason to demand mass deportations or even a closing of the borders. He simply wanted to encourage broader settlement of the new immigrants, greater funding for English-language schooling, and precautions against importation of criminals:
I am not for refusing entirely to admit them into our Colonies: all that seems to be necessary is, to distribute them more equally, mix them with the English, establish English Schools where they are now too thick settled, and take some care to prevent the practice lately fallen into by some of the Ship Owners, of sweeping the German Gaols to make up the number of their Passengers.
Maybe Franklin didn’t want to consider deportations or strict border controls because he didn’t believe in the feasibility of a massive militarised law enforcement apparatus that would be necessary to enforce these. We surely can feasibly have those things today (albeit at the cost of turning a leading democracy into a leading police state). But if we have learned anything from the German-American experience, why on earth would we want to?
In Ben Franklin’s day, Germans were swarthy, ignorant, unskilled, uncouth foreigners. They were alien to the people of the United States, and migrating in such vast numbers that they could have swamped and sunk the ship of state. But this clearly did not happen. Quite the contrary. Germans became truly American to a vast degree, despite continued immigration from Germany through the 19th century. If you keep ethnic descent in mind, then the Germans truly won World War II, as esteemed co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther has pointed out before:
Forget about General Eisenhower, and get used to Generalfeldmarschall Eisenhauer. Same for Chester Nimitz for the Navy (now: Generaladmiral Nimitz) and Carl Andrew Spaatz for the Air Force (now: Generalfeldmarschall Karl Andreas Spatz).
The Germans were as alien to the US Ben Franklin knew as Hispanics are alien to the US we know today. Actually, that’s wrong: the Germans were more alien. Hispanics have grown up in close proximity to the US, under the influence of its cultural and political leadership. They hail from democracies of some kind, and have a much better understanding of democracy than most any German growing up in the monarchic, aristocratic Germany of Ben Franklin’s day would have had. They have strong economic and cultural ties to the US. Many Hispanics are literally native Americans. Hispanics are far less likely to undermine the America we know today than the Germans were likely to undermine the America Ben Franklin knew in his day.
The Germans were truly alien to the US. But we no longer think of them that way. If I had told Ben Franklin that two centuries down the road, the largest single ethnic group in the country he helped found would be the Germans, he would have recoiled quite violently. But that is in fact the case: Germans are the largest single ethnic group in the modern United States, numbering almost 50 million. The Germans won World War II for the US. The Germans gave the US some of its greatest cultural contributions, including hot dogs and hamburgers. German-Americans include such American figures as Tom Cruise and Walt Disney.
Perhaps Ben Franklin would consider the modern US unimaginably impoverished by the supposed dilution of Anglo-Saxon culture and institutions. But the institutions that he established were preserved by generations of German immigrants. German-Americans gave their lives for these institutions in World War II. We don’t think of the hamburger as alien; it’s the quintessential piece of American cuisine.
If German immigration has taught us anything about swarthy, unskilled, uneducated, impolite, and politically apathetic immigrants, it’s that the United States will be just fine taking them in. The US admitted millions of Germans in an era of open borders when its institutions were unbelievably weak and newborn, and when those millions of Germans were coming in far greater numbers relative to the US population than anything we see today. The notion that US society and institutions are less equipped to cope with a similar influx under open borders conditions today than the US society and institutions of the Revolutionary Era is absolutely laughable.
We may be shocked to see what the America of 2063 or 2113 looks like. It may be even less familiar to us than the America of 2013 would be to Ben Franklin. But from all we’ve seen with German immigration, it seems quite clear that the waves of immigrants making the US their home today, Hispanic or otherwise, will turn out just fine.
And we can repeat this exercise ad infinitum. Other cohorts of immigrants have lessons to teach us too, after all. The Irish are the third-largest single ethnic group in the US today, numbering over 35 million, or over 10% of the population. And judging from the concerns of 19th century Americans facing a horde of Irish migrants, again, I think the US and its people will be just fine: