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George Will

George F. Will: Immigration criteria among America's oldest debates

| Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, 7:00 p.m.
Kristen Beard, a Seton Hill University student, protests the immigration ban last February in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Kristen Beard, a Seton Hill University student, protests the immigration ban last February in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.


In 1790, the finest mind in the first Congress, and of his generation, addressed immigration in the House of Representatives: “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.” Perhaps today's 115th Congress will resume one of America's oldest debates: By what criteria should we decide who is worthy to come amongst us?

The antecedents of James Madison's “we” and “us” include almost 80 million immigrants (including more than 11 million undocumented) or their children. They might be amused to learn that in Thomas Jefferson's only full-length book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he worried about too many immigrants from Europe with monarchical principles “imbibed in their early youth,” ideas that might turn America into “a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”

A century later, Theodore Roosevelt saw virtue emerging from struggles between the “Anglo-Saxon” race and what his friend Rudyard Kipling called “lesser breeds without the law.”

TR, who worried that United States was becoming a “polyglot boarding house,” supported America's first significant legislation restricting immigration, passed to exclude Chinese laborers he thought would depress American wages and be “ruinous to the white race.”

In 1902, in the final volume of professor Woodrow Wilson's widely-read “A History of the American People,” he contrasted “the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe” — e.g., Norwegians — with southern and eastern Europeans who had “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”

Army data gathered during World War I mobilization demonstrated, according to a Princeton psychologist, “the intellectual superiority of our Nordic group over the Mediterranean, Alpine and Negro groups.”

The next phase of America's immigration debate will concern border security and whether those who are here illegally should stay. The border was irrelevant to the 42 percent of illegal immigrants who entered with valid visas that they then overstayed. Border-security spending quadrupled in the 1990s, then tripled in the next decade.

Now that net immigration of Mexicans has been negative for 10 years, Americans eager to build a wall should not build it on the U.S.-Mexico border but on the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Fifty-eight percent of those here illegally have been here at least 10 years; 31 percent are homeowners; 33 percent have children who, having been born here, are citizens. The nation would recoil from the police measures that would be necessary to extract these people.

They are not going home; they are home.

This month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided 98 7-Eleven stores in 17 states, making 21 arrests. Rome was not built in a day, and it would be unreasonable to expect the government to guarantee, in one fell swoop, that only American citizens will hold jobs dispensing Slurpees and Big Gulps.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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