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What did the Founding Fathers say about immigration?

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By See-Dubya  •  October 19, 2007 02:50 PM

And now for something completely different:

“America is a nation of immigrants”, we’re told, and open-borders advocates often harken back to the days of ye olde Founding Fathers to justify their position. (E.g. here. ) Unfortunately, their recall of those days is just a little bit fuzzy.

This link goes to a record of a debate on the subject of immigration and naturalization on the floor of the House of Representatives, from February of 1790. The world was a very different place then. But, even if we are not as concerned as they were in filling up the vast savage expanses of Ohio wilderness with ranks of stout yeomen farmers, we do still want to import labor. Yet, when offered a bill to naturalize immigrants after only one year of residence, the Congress of 1790 balked and began a fascinating debate about whether they were selling citizenship too cheaply.

I’m not saying this is some sort of slam dunk for modern border security advocates. It’s not exactly on point, and there are eloquent arguments made on both sides of the issue. But though the Founders encouraged immigration, they were clear that an immigration policy should first and foremost serve the national interest. The specifics were a contentious issue back then as well. In fact, many of the arguments made by Congressmen in 1790 sound eerily familiar to those being discussed today:

Crime—Here’s a Mr. Burke, representing South Carolina:

There is another class also that I would interdict, that is, the convicts and criminals which they pour out of British jails. I wish sincerely some mode could be adopted to prevent the importation of such; but that, perhaps, is not in our power; the introduction of them ought to be considered as a high misdemeanor.

Burden on social services— Here’s Connecticut’s Roger Sherman:

Now, the regulation provided for in this bill, entitles all free white persons, which includes emigrants, and even those who are likely to become chargeable. [In other words, a liability--See Dub] It certainly never would be undertaken by Congress to compel the States to receive and support this class of persons; it would therefore be necessary that some clause should be added to the bill to counteract such a general proposition.

Unrest in local politics—Mr. Smith of South Carolina:

Now, if every emigrant who purchases a small lot, but for which perhaps he has not paid, becomes in a moment qualified to mingle in their parish or corporation politics, it is possible it may create great uneasiness in neighborhoods which have been long accustomed to live in peace and unity.

Election fraud— related to concerns about political unrest in general were concerns about people claiming cheap citizenship to throw elections. Here’s Georgia’s Mr. Jackson:

Shall stories be told of our citizenship, such as I have read in the Pennsylvania Magazine of the citizenship there? If my memory serves me right, the story runs, that at a contested election in Philadelphia, when parties ran very high, and no stone was left unturned, on either side, to carry the election, most of the ships in the harbor were cleared of their crews, who, ranged under the masters and owners, came before a Magistrate, took the oath of allegiance, and paid half a crown tax to the Collector, as the Constitution required, then went and voted, and decided the contest of the day. On the return of one of the vessels, whose crew had been employed in the affair of the election, they fell in with a shoal of porpoises off Cape Henlopen: “Ha!” said one of them, “what merry company have we got here! I wonder where they are going so cheerfully?” “Going,” replied one of his comrades, “why, going to Philadelphia, to be sure, to pay taxes, and vote for Assembly men!” I hope, Mr. Chairman, we have more respect for our situation as citizens, than to expose ourselves to the taunts and jeers of a deriding world, by making that situation too cheap.

On the other hand, here’s a Mr. Lawrence:

Nor do I believe, sir, there is any just ground of apprehension that people will come to this city, from Nova Scotia, or any other part of the world, in bodies of three or four thousand, to turn our elections, or interfere in our politics.

Heh. Nova Scotia.

Full Faith and Credit Issues— Roger Sherman, again,

…presumed it was intended by the Convention, who framed the Constitution, that Congress should have the power of naturalization, in order to prevent particular States receiving citizens, and forcing them upon others who would not have received them in any other manner.

Reciprocity— Most of us have probably received that chain e-mail about how an American in Mexico (especially illegally) would enjoy none of the protections nor the courtesies that a Mexican would enjoy here. Why should we extend rights to someone here illegally that they wouldn’t enjoy in another country? South Carolina’s Mr. Smith wondered the same thing a long time back:

…An alien, in Great Britain, is not permitted to inherit, or hold real estate for his own use; consequently, a citizen of the United States, and a subject of Great Britain, would not be on an equal footing with respect to estates descended to them by inheritance.

Loyalty—Mr. Madison:

…It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours. But why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of. And what is proposed by the amendment is, that they shall take nothing more than an oath of fidelity, and declare their intention to reside in the United States. Under such terms, it was well observed by my colleague, aliens might acquire the right of citizenship, and return to the country from which they came, and evade the laws intended to encourage the commerce and industry of the real citizens and inhabitants of America, enjoying at the same time all the advantages of citizens and aliens.

Assimilation— There was a reason behind the residency requirement: immigrants needed to become familiar with America. Mr. Smith, again,

…conceived a man ought to be some time in the country before he could pretend to exercise it. What could he know of the Government the moment he landed? Little or nothing: how then could he ascertain who was a proper person to legislate or judge of the laws? Certainly gentlemen would not pretend to bestow a privilege upon a man which he is incapable of using?

And here’s Mr. Stone:

I would let the term of residence be long enough to accomplish two objects, before I would consent to admit a foreigner to have any thing to do with the politics of this country. First, that he should have an opportunity of knowing the circumstances of our Government, and in consequence thereof, shall have admitted the truth of the principles we hold. Second, that he shall have acquired a taste for this kind of Government.

Now: note the text of the bill being considered refers to “free” and “white” immigrants. I wish I could tell you that the various delegates in the debate clamored against this clause.

But, they didn’t.

What this does tell us, however, is that these concerns—about crime, reciprocity, loyalty, assimilation, politics—predate current immigration trends. Shoot, look at a map of America in 1790: they predate the U.S.-Mexican border. Actually, they predate Mexico. This debate was not about race: the Founders were fighting about these issues back when, sadly, only immigrants who were white were eligible for American citizenship.

I’ve gone on too long here, but there’s still much more to read and enjoy in the record of this debate. If nothing else, it’s worth a click just for the clear reasoning and stirring rhetoric of patriots like James Madison. Congress has sure come a long way, baby.

P.S. I wrote most of this last night, but now it seems unexpectedly timely as an immigration slapfight has broken out at NRO. Jeff Goldstein has links and great commentary of his own.

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