“Our country is FULL.”
“If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something we can do at this point. Can’t do it.”
“I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. … Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.”
You probably recognize the first quote, tweeted out Sunday by President Trump. You may even recognize the second quote, made by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in response to a question at a campaign event on the same day in Oskaloosa, Iowa (and which seems to prove that no party has a monopoly on xenophobia).
But which politician uttered the third? Surely this warning of the “untold millions … storming our gates for admission” must be from someone trying to appeal to the current wave of anti-immigrant hysteria sweeping our country, right?
Wrong. The author of the third quote is Sen. Pat McCarran, D-Nev. He was speaking not this week, but in March of 1953, almost exactly 66 years ago.
Somehow, despite McCarran’s apocalyptic warnings, the United States has survived for the nearly seven decades since he uttered that statement.
In fact, critics of immigration have always warned of “alien hordes” that are threatening our way of life. The composition of these hordes has evolved over time: from Irish Catholics to Chinese “coolies” to Eastern European Jews (just like Bernie’s dad, who arrived during the “open borders” era in 1921) to today’s Latino and Muslim immigrants. The names of the bogeymen change, but the rhetoric defaming them stays disturbingly the same.
Somehow America is always on the verge of being swamped by a wave of newcomers that “will soon so outnumber us that ... we will not in my opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious” (the words of Ben Franklin in 1751, raising the alarm about the influx of Germans into Pennsylvania). Yet, somehow, America always perseveres.
How is it that our supposedly full nation seems to always survive these onslaughts of “aliens?” Because of two factors.
First, despite the rhetoric from the likes of Trump, Sanders, and McCarran, we weren’t “full” in the past and we’re not “full” now. In fact, our labor force is barely growing at all (0.5 percent annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office), which is a major factor in today’s economic growth rates not being as robust as they were in the “golden era” of the post-World War II baby boom.
According to The New York Times, overall population growth is now at its lowest point since the Great Depression, and 80 percent of America’s counties are actually experiencing negative population growth among working-age adults, contributing to acute labor shortages in some geographic areas and specific industries.
With an expanding elderly population, this is a recipe for disaster. The Times reports that by 2035 if current trends continue there will be 2.2 workers for each Social Security beneficiary (down from 2.8 currently), imposing an increasingly crushing and unsustainable tax burden upon the working population.
Where will the home health care aides, the nurses, and the other service workers that meet the needs of the elderly – jobs often taken by immigrants – come from if immigration is cut off and the already low birth rates among native-born Americans continue to decline? Do the math: America is not full, and cutting off the flow of immigrants could have disastrous economic results for those of us who already live here.
Second, American culture is remarkably resilient and has proven itself to have an amazing absorptive capacity. Take, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s claim, writing in 1751 in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind," that “our government will become precarious” due to the influx of inassimilable immigrants.
In 1924, nearly a century ago, the U.S. passed the National Origins Act, establishing strict national quotas designed primarily to exclude Southern and Eastern Europeans who were deemed inassimilable in part because they practiced unfamiliar faiths, namely Catholicism and Judaism.
Imagine how shocked the sponsors of the National Origins Act would have been on June 28, 2010, when Justice John Paul Stevens retired, leaving a Supreme Court composed entirely of Catholic and Jewish justices. Somehow, America had absorbed these “aliens” into the highest court of its land, and its traditions of jurisprudence had survived.
Another claim, made by Franklin and repeated down to today by immigrant critics, is that newcomers simply won’t learn “our” language (English) and that this problem is especially acute among today’s immigrants, who – unlike the “good” immigrants of yesteryear – cling to their native languages.
Once again, American culture has proven to be remarkably absorptive in this regard. In fact, Latinos – the group against which this charge is usually leveled – learn English more quickly than some prior immigrant communities of the past did.
A University of Wisconsin study found that, while 92 percent of second-generation Latino immigrants speak English “very well,” in the 1800s 35 percent of second-generation German immigrants in some counties in that state spoke no English at all. Immigrants learn quickly that the path to success in America involves mastery of the English language, and they tend to get with the program pretty fast.
Critics of immigration paint a scary picture, one where alien swarms practicing strange religions and speaking unfamiliar tongues (and refusing to learn English) are “invading” our already full country, imposing upon us a burden we simply cannot absorb.
History proves that’s been hogwash in the past, and it’s hogwash now. If we believed those who said America was “full” in the past, many of our ancestors might not have gotten into this country (indeed, Bernie’s father barely beat the 1924 National Origins Act cutoff), and the loss to America would have been incalculable (although, as 44 percent of our Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or their children, we can guess).
If we fall for the same tired rhetoric today -- rhetoric that has no grounding in either historic or present-day facts -- who knows what we will lose, what future Andrew Carnegie (who came here as an “unskilled” teenager in 1858 and who, at his death, was the third richest person in human history) or Steve Jobs (whose father came to the U.S. from Syria after experiencing political persecution) we might exclude.
The purveyors of fear of immigrants are asking you to bet against America’s ability to absorb newcomers. History shows we have done it before and I am betting we can do it again. I’ll take that bet to the bank.