FROM CHAPTER 14: A FAIR CHANCE IN THE RACE OF LIFE
“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race, and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position . . . . Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln, in debate with Stephen A. Douglas
October 13, 1858
Abraham Lincoln guided through Congress the first major federal immigration law in American history (creating the U.S. Immigration Bureau and the Office of the Commissioner of Immigration). He entitled it “An Act to Encourage Immigration,” termed it a great policy, and said it would give America’s immigrants “effective national protection.” Lincoln often referred to immigrants as “one of the principal replenishing streams.” America, he said, has a system that allows people to prosper, to rise, and to get rich. But when that system is successful, it creates a shortage of affordable labor. New immigrants fill that void. In Lincoln’s day, it was filled primarily by Irish and Chinese immigrants. Today, it is filled largely by people from Latin America, particularly Mexico.
Unfortunately, the once-mighty U.S. immigration system has been degraded to a point where it is no longer effective, as witnessed by the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country today. An ongoing argument pits conservatives — who say that undocumented workers take jobs away from Americans, don’t pay taxes, and are a drain on local and state resources — against progressives, who say that opposition to immigration is rooted in racism. Some propose building a wall along the entire 1,954-mile border between Mexico and the United States. Others want to deport the entire undocumented population, as well as 300,000 so-called anchor babies (children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants).
My sense is that if Abraham Lincoln were surveying all of this today, he would remind us that the United States was built on immigration, and that, except for Native Americans, we are all descended from immigrants who journeyed to America looking for a new and better life. In my opinion, he would clearly agree that our immigration system is broken. But he would also say that closing the borders is not the answer, that building a multibillion-dollar wall along the border is ill-advised, and that forcibly deporting 11 million people is unfeasible. He would ask us to consider who provides most of the affordable labor in this country. Lincoln’s view of immigrants as “one of the principal replenishing streams” is still as valid now as it was in his day.
A leader like Lincoln, however, would definitely take action on such a broken system. He might propose change in two steps. First, he might implement a plan to legitimize those undocumented immigrants who are already here through a onetime offer of amnesty. Concurrent with that program, he would probably create a more effective and comprehensive immigration system similar to what the United States had at the turn of the 20th century, when most European immigrants came through Ellis Island. With our technological capabilities today, there is no excuse for not being able to keep track of everybody who goes through the system. And once a new national immigration structure is reset, it must be strictly enforced.
Abraham Lincoln knew that all people everywhere desire freedom and opportunity. So let us all remember that for millions of oppressed people the world over, America is still the “last best, hope of earth."