“George Washington set in motion a strategy so radical that it made this country the wealthiest and strongest on Earth — it made America great.
He embraced a vision for an open America that could almost be read today as a form of deep idealism or altruism. “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions,” he told newly arrived Irishmen in 1783. He assured them they’d be “welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
But Washington’s vision wasn’t primarily about charity or helping others. It was about building the kind of country that he wanted the United States to become. Greatness would require great people. America would need more than it had.
The contemporary debate around immigration is often framed around an axis of selfishness versus generosity, with Donald Trump talking about the need to put “America first” while opponents tell heartbreaking stories of deportations and communities torn apart. A debate about how to enforce the existing law tends to supersede discussion of what the law ought to say.
All of this misses the core point. Immigration to the United States has not, historically, been an act of kindness toward strangers. It’s been a strategy for national growth and national greatness.
. . . .
Last but by no means least, while it’s certainly true that Americans care about the average well-being of American citizens, we also care about something else — greatness, for lack of a better word.
In per capita income terms, the United States has, by most measures, been overtaken by Switzerland. The Netherlands is relatively close behind, and when you consider inequality and quality of public services, the typical Dutch person may well enjoy a higher standard of living than the typical American. This kind of thing matters. But at the same time, there is a reason that when Americans feel anxiety about national decline, they tend to think of China and not Switzerland. The Netherlands is a great place to live, but it hasn’t been a great nation since the early 17th century.
Aggregates matter, in other words.
If Americans had listened to the counsel of the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s and drastically curtailed immigration from outside of Protestant Europe, it would probably still be a rich country today. But it would be a very different kind of rich country from the one we know — one with fewer, smaller cities mainly focused on exporting agricultural goods and other natural resources to the wider world. A place more like Canada or a supersize version of New Zealand, rather than an industrial and technological powerhouse that intervened decisively in two world wars and anchored a coalition of liberal states to defeat communism.
Going forward, demographers forecast that immigration — both the people it provides directly and the children that immigrants bear and raise — is the only reason America’s working-age population isn’t declining. This is doubly true when you consider that immigrants’ work in the household and child care sectors likely serves to increase native-born Americans’ childbearing as well.
A declining working-age population, seen already in Japan and some southern European countries, poses some serious challenges to a national economy. It tends to push interest rates down to an incredibly low level, making it difficult for central banks to respond to a recession. It also makes it more difficult to sustain public sector retirement programs and elder care more generally.
There are some offsetting upsides (less strain on transportation infrastructure, for example), and, like anything else, the problems are solvable. Fundamentally, however, an America that is shrinking is a country that is going to be a lesser force in the world than an America that is growing. It’s true, of course, that an America that continues to be open to immigrants will be a progressively less white and less Christian country over time. That’s a threatening prospect to many white Christian Americans, who implicitly identify the country in ethnic and sectarian terms. But America’s formal self-definition has never been in those terms.
And for those who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the value of America’s ideals, accepting a future of decline and retreat in the name of ethnic purity should be unacceptable. That the more homogeneous America will be not just smaller and weaker but also poorer on a per capita basis only underscores what folly it would be to embrace the narrow vision. That hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to move to our shores — and that America has a long tradition of assimilating foreigners and a political mythos and civil culture that is conducive to doing so — is an enormous source of national strength.
It’s time we started to see it that way.”
I had these same feelings about many of the “happy cases” that came through my courtroom in Arlington over the years. I was constantly impressed with the courage, dedication, determination, and under-appreciated skills of the folks who came before me. And, I felt inspired and optimistic that they had chosen, notwithstanding hardship and obstacles, to join our national community and help make America even greater. Building America, one case at a time.