Wrestling With Immigration

By Alan W. Dowd

Some of us thought the ugliness of the language President Trump used to describe certain members of Congress—alongside the ugliness of the language certain members of Congress used to describe law-enforcement agents trying to enforce the law on our southern border—would mark the low point of America’s 21st-century struggles with immigration. The twin massacres in El Paso (perpetrated by a man motivated by racist hate, who targeted people of Hispanic descent) and Dayton (perpetrated by a man motivated by anarchist hate, who labeled ICE facilities “concentration camps”) proved us wrong. 

The ugly words and horrific events of the summer of 2019 underscore that this nation of immigrants is simply not handling the challenge created by immigration. It’s a challenge that must be addressed—for the good of immigrants, Americans-in-the-making and American citizens alike. Failure to do so is poisoning our politics, undermining the rule of law, endangering lives and threatening the nation’s security.


It’s been said that admitting you have a problem is the first step to fixing it. What’s true in 12-step programs is true in public policy. These are today’s immigration numbers:

  • In June, DHS officials informed Congress that in a 40-day span, DHS took into custody 60,000 immigrant children, many of them unaccompanied. The month of May saw a record 144,000 people cross the border illegally; on a single day in May, 5,800 crossed the border illegally.
  • There were 240,930 border apprehensions in 2017.
  • DHS estimates 12 million immigrants are living in the U.S. illegally—up from around 8 million in 2010. A Heritage Foundation study concludes that undocumented immigrants “impose a net fiscal burden of around $54.5 billion per year.”

We can quibble over whether all of this adds up to a crisis. But with government agencies overwhelmed and overstretched, with the law unenforced, with innocent children in danger, illegal immigration is undeniably a problem.

Read that again: illegal immigration is the problem—not immigration. America is a nation of immigrants—each new cohort of immigrants serving as a wellspring for our country, a reminder of our roots, a surge of growth and dynamism. Oddly, many Americans forget or ignore this truth. This is a nation where a Czech war refugee could be entrusted to guide U.S. foreign policy as secretary of state, where a refugee from Somalia could serve in Congress, where an Afghan immigrant could represent U.S. interests in Kabul and Baghdad and at the UN, where a Cuban or Taiwanese immigrant could serve in the president’s cabinet, where the son of a Turkish diplomat could grow up to run America’s most ubiquitous company, where a kid can start out as a Soviet refugee, survive the Nazis and World War II, and become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. To ignore this is to ignore a key element of America’s greatness.

America’s foreign-born population stands at 44.4 million—13.5 percent of the overall population. To put that in perspective, immigrants represented 14.8 percent of the population in 1890. In other words, today’s immigration numbers may sound high, but the percentage is below the historic highs. What’s different today is that only 44 percent of the foreign-born population are naturalized U.S. citizens, down from 78 percent in 1950. As historian Alan Brinkley writes in The Unfinished Nation, many immigrant arrivals since the 1960s were “less willing to accept the standards of the larger society,” “more likely to demand recognition of their own ethnic identity,” “challenged the assimilationist idea” and “advocated instead a culturally pluralist society.”

This insistence among large segments of today’s foreign-born population to remain separate from the American Experiment—this refusal to become American—is not healthy for a nation founded on an idea, rather than blood or birthplace, race or religion.

Indeed, far from promoting the vile racialism embraced by the El Paso murderer, an immigration system premised on naturalization has nothing to do with externalities, but instead focuses on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. It’s all there in the citizenship oath and naturalization process: fidelity to the U.S., support for the Constitution, respect for the country’s laws, renouncement of allegiance to foreign powers, an “understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States,” a willingness to defend the U.S. from enemies. Someone living here illegally has neither taken this oath nor learned these lessons of naturalization.


Those who justify illegal immigration tell us “no human being is illegal,” and they’re correct about this. Words matter; to attach the adjective “illegal” to a person can have the effect of dehumanizing him or her. No child of God is “illegal.”

However, we certainly do illegal things at times. Entering the United States illegally, by definition, is illegal. No matter how hard-working he is, an immigrant who enters this country outside the avenues prescribed by the law is breaking the law. If the law means anything, if there is to be justice for those who enter the country legally, there must be a penalty for entering illegally. If there isn’t, it breeds contempt for the law—whether in the policies adopted by America’s neighbors (here and here), or organized waves of illegal crossings, or human-trafficking networks, or the sort of violence we witnessed in El Paso.

Where those who justify illegal immigration are wrong is in advocating open borders. The U.S. government has the right and the responsibility to determine who enters this country—and how they enter. That’s part of sovereignty. A nation-state that cannot control its borders isn’t really sovereign—which is to say, not self-governing, not in control.

“People should have to ring the doorbell before they enter my house or my country,” as columnist Tom Friedman puts it. Why is that? Why do we expect people to ring the doorbell before entering our house? One of the main reasons is security and self-protection. An open border, just like an open front door, represents a threat to our security. But don’t take my word for it.

In July, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles released an indictment related to a string of brutal murders in southern California. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Nineteen of the 22 defendants charged in the indictment had entered the country illegally.”

Noting that 100 people from the Caribbean/South America had joined ISIS, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) warned in 2015 that human-smuggling networks are “so efficient that if a terrorist or almost anyone wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare.” (Before dismissing that number as insignificant, recall that 19 al-Qaeda operatives maimed Manhattan.) SOUTHCOM’s 2019 posture statement echoes what was said in 2015: “Established drug-trafficking routes and techniques provide opportunities for the illegal movement of other commodities and people—including terrorists,” it reads, adding that ISIS “could leverage established trafficking networks to make their way to our border.”


One gets the sense that El Paso will serve as a turning point for this nation of immigrants: toward an even more-open border and less-sovereign United States, or toward a new consensus on sensible immigration-and-naturalization policy. We should aim, hope and pray for the latter—and learn from what worked in the past.

From 1892 to 1954, 12 million people entered America through Ellis Island. Thomas Pitkin writes that when Frederic Howe became commissioner of Ellis Island, his goal was “to have immigrants well started on their way to becoming good American citizens before they left the island.” Toward that end, Howe forged partnerships with local schools to teach immigrants English, provided “a beginner’s class in American citizenship,” endeavored to “Americanize the immigrant” and transformed Ellis Island into “a comfortable waiting room” for future Americans. In Howe’s day, that was considered the progressive position. And it served America well.

Wouldn’t it make sense to divert some of the $54.5 billion we spend supporting immigrants who are here illegally into long-term solutions that bring them out of the shadows and put them on a path to citizenship? Could we spend those resources converting unused federal facilities—especially in Texas, California and Florida, where 47 percent of undocumented migrants reside—into centers that provide immigrants with proper housing, medical care, instruction in English and civics, and connections to job opportunities?

These modern-day Ellis Islands wouldn’t be cheap. But by promoting legal immigration and encouraging naturalization, they would be an investment in our future. And by focusing on assimilating immigrants, they would free up law-enforcement agencies to do what they’re trained to do.


It’s telling, amidst today’s deeply divisive debate over immigration, that 30 years ago President Reagan devoted a large portion of his last two speeches as president to the challenge of immigration.

The centerpiece of his farewell address was a discussion of America as a “shining city upon a hill”—a city “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.” Reagan explained that the city in his mind’s eye had “doors…open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Reagan believed in immigration and recognized that America is great because “people of all kinds” are drawn here. Yet in that same speech, he emphasized an essential element of immigration—the process of inculcating into new Americans and new generations of Americans the uniqueness of our country. “We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant…If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are.” He worried about “an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit” and urged “more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.” Reagan was talking about the process of learning and celebrating what it means to be American.

A week after he delivered his farewell speech, just a day before his successor was sworn in, Reagan poignantly noted, “Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close…This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world…Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier.” He then added a warning: “This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

Add it all up, and Reagan was arguing that America should welcome anyone who wants to become American. But in Regan’s view, they need to “ring the doorbell.” That word become was important for Reagan. “You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese,” he observed. “But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.” Becoming American—learning about America, participating and respecting America’s civic rituals, accepting the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship—was an essential part of Reagan’s sunny view of immigration.


In wrestling with the challenges created by illegal immigration, many Christians project what Christ expects of His followers onto government. But governments are held to a different standard than individuals. Governments are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to do—and shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do.

For instance, scripture challenges God’s people to keep no record of wrongs, to stop worrying about tomorrow and to “show hospitality to strangers.” Such behavior is next to godliness for individuals, but such behavior is next to suicidal for nation-states. A government that kept no record of wrongs, didn’t “worry about tomorrow” and all the dangers it holds, and welcomed strangers without question or qualification, would expose its citizens to enormous risk—and wouldn’t be living up to its obligations.

Yet just as we should expect our government to enforce laws and maintain order, we should expect our government to treat the immigrant with dignity and compassion—remembering that we ourselves are considered “strangers,” “aliens,” “foreigners” in this world. Paul calls us “Christ’s ambassadors,” citizens of another land. To extend the metaphor, this country is our diplomatic posting. This piece of earth matters enough to heaven that God has placed us here to represent Him, share our blessings, do justice and show mercy, and care about the here-and-now, even as we focus our hearts on the hereafter.

In this regard, we might be inspired and even surprised by the words of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, who was called to his eternal home in 2009. “When I meet God,” he wrote, “I expect to meet him as an American. Admittedly, that is a statement that can easily be misunderstood. It is not intended as a boast or as a claim on God’s favorable judgment. It is a simple statement of fact. Among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing.”  Neuhaus recognized, as his biographer has written, that “every Christian is first and always a citizen of what Augustine called the heavenly and eternal City of God…that this citizenship informs how he lives in this fallen, mortal world, the City of Man” and that “God is not indifferent to the American Experiment.”

If well-meaning Christians continue to confuse the responsibilities of the state with the responsibilities of discipleship, illegal immigration—immigration without naturalization—will transform America in profound ways. And that great American Experiment—of which Neuhaus and Reagan, you and I, our grandparents and great-grandparents, are a part—will fail.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.