Say what you will about illegal immigrants, the question of deportation, or the building of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, the fact remains that Americans have the right and the obligation to regulate both the quantity and character of migrants crossing their borders.
For as long as there have been nation-states, frontiers have been a defining feature of national sovereignty. They are as fundamental to a country’s identity as culture, language, history and political tradition. To speak of a nation-state is to recognize the cultural distinctiveness of a particular group of people and the autonomy they exercise over a distinct piece of territory. And what better way to reinforce the notion of “us” verses “them” than to take steps to ensure that the perimeter of the homeland is secure.
Enter Donald Trump, the brash and unyielding New York developer who has made securing America’s southern border a central mantra of his presidential campaign. In doing so, he has masterfully channeled the populist spirit of America’s working class, dispirited by spiraling economic decline, government over-reach, and a tidal wave of unchecked immigrants competing for scarce jobs and strained social services.
Trump’s appeal is simple: America can only be “great again” when it reasserts control over its territory, regains fiscal discipline, and stands tall against all threats, foreign and domestic, that challenge its security. And these things simply are not possible with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants
streaming unchecked across U.S. borders annually, and with an estimated eleven
million undocumented aliens already living in the country.
Trump’s answer to the refugee tsunami across the southern border is a renewed commitment to law and order from the inner cities to the heartland. His appeal is direct; not only does America need a wall, in the words of the fictional Col. Jessup, "
you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall." He may be on to something. Today, 65 countries
have constructed fences or walls along their borders. That is up from just 16 in 1989.
In the eyes of Trump supporters, a plethora of federal and state policies undermine the rights of American citizens. They establish virtual entitlements for immigrants that include everything from subsidized housing and schooling to Medicare, cash welfare, food stamps
, and drivers’ licenses. According to a recent report
by the Center for Immigration Studies, “the average household headed by an immigrant (legal and illegal) costs taxpayers $6,234 in federal welfare benefits, which is 41 percent higher than the $4,431 received by the average native household.”
It is no surprise that Trump’s message has resonated with a sizeable portion of the American electorate. His pledge to build a border wall that Mexico will pay for is a direct appeal to an aggrieved public that feels it has reached the breaking point. Citizens are fed up with increasing violence and lawlessness throughout America’s urban centers. They fear the spread of radical Islam and rightly blame much of the domestic terrorism it has spawned on a permissive legal immigration policy that does little to root out jihadi sympathizers before they enter the U.S.
As recently as June 2016, the House Homeland Security Committee noted in its Terror Threat Snapshot
that the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has identified “...individuals with ties to terrorist groups in Syria attempting to gain entry to the U.S. through the U.S. refugee program.” Even so, the Obama administration continues to accelerate the resettlement of refugees from war-torn Syria into the U.S. Over 5,300 Syrians were admitted between 2011 and 2015 with another 10,000 given asylum during the summer of 2016 alone. And this may be only the tip of the iceberg unless congress, or a future president Trump, steps in to staunch the flow. According to the Committee report, “Law enforcement and intelligence officials have repeatedly indicated that the U.S. lacks the reliable and credible intelligence required to properly vet and screen potential Syrian refugees.”
Add to this refugee crisis a burgeoning “sanctuary cities” movement, estimated by U.S. law enforcement at over 340 American jurisdictions
, and the stage is set for a backlash on a national scale. A constitutional crisis over executive authority in matters of refugee resettlement may be in the offing.
Trump’s populist message is hardly new in the annals of American presidential politics. No less a figure than former president Bill Clinton railed against the cost to American communities of illegal aliens and called for a more aggressive policy of repatriation. It is a position now repudiated by his wife and presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, as she works to shore up her support among Hispanic voters. Addressing congress and the American public in his 1995 State of the Union
speech, the former president remarked:
"All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service [sic] they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That's why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens. In the budget I will present to you, we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace as recommended by the commission headed by former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it."
American unease with the unfettered flow of immigrants into the country goes back to the dawn of the Republic. The enactment of a series of laws known generally as the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798 first gave the President authority to deport émigrés considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” even at times when the nation was not at war.
Over the course of the next two centuries, the government adopted both laws and policies that suspended Chinese immigration for ten years (1882), prohibited the importation of unskilled foreign laborers (1885), established character and medical criteria for admittance into the U.S. (1891, 1903, and 1907), instituted literacy tests for immigrants over sixteen (1917), and imposed quotas on national groups seeking admittance into the country (1921, 1922, 1924, 1952 . . . 2001).
While many of these laws were controversial in their day, and later were repealed, it is undeniable that America always has reserved unto itself the right to regulate who can, and cannot, enjoy the benefits of living in the United States.
Historically, Americans have prided themselves on being a benevolent, hospitable and welcoming nation. It is a hallmark of our society that we treasure diversity and have done more than any other country to serve the needs of those fleeing persecution. But generosity has its limits.
Immigration is not a right, but a privilege. To remain a viable option for most Americans it must be seen as providing a net benefit for the U.S. It must be sustainably, fairly and affordably managed, and those admitted into the country must pose no obvious threat to national security.
Justice Robert Jackson once famously remarked, that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact.” Today, we might add, neither is the American Dream.
Rand H. Fishbein, PH.D. is President of Fishbein Associates, Inc., a public policy consulting firm based in Potomac, Maryland. He is a former Professional Staff Member (Majority) of both the U.S. Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations and Defense Appropriations subcommittees and worked as Special Assistant for National Security Affairs to the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI). For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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