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Aziz Rana

Relatively Open Borders -- Not Harsh Immigration Restrictions -- Follow the True American Tradition


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Among the great ironies of the present moment is that "Tea Party" calls for restrictive immigration claim to follow in the footsteps of the country's founders. But rather than mimicking early Americans, Tea Partiers explicitly reject one of the classic features of American exceptionalism: relatively open borders. Even more troubling, they disavow the truly revolutionary aspect of our past -- the idea that an ever-expanding range of people can be incorporated into a shared political and economic project. What remains are those racially exclusionary accounts of membership that have long marred national life.

American settlers, before and after independence, self-consciously broke from what they considered to be European judgments about migration and naturalization. The English crown from which the United States gained its independence took for granted that there should be a fundamental divide between subjects and aliens -- something that current Tea Partiers would find congenial. Under European monarchies, suspicion of foreigners went hand in hand with laws that limited landholding, inheritance, and meaningful political rights (like voting) solely to subjects of the crown.

By contrast, the U.S. developed remarkably flexible immigration policies that made the border more a port of entry than a meaningful barrier for new arrivals. These policies included practices that today would be quite surprising, such as noncitizen voting and noncitizen access to federal land out west. In the years after the Civil War more than a dozen states enacted laws that allowed immigrants to vote before naturalization. In doing so, they followed a tried and true path laid out by the founders' congressional approach to frontier territories as well as by early state measures in Vermont, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, Michigan, and elsewhere.

This openness was tied to settlers' views of the United States as a historically exceptional nation -- an "empire for liberty," uniquely committed to self-government and economic autonomy. As Thomas Jefferson famously argued, territorial expansion -- by providing settlers with equal access to land -- was the basic engine driving this national project. But for such expansion to be sustainable, the country needed a burgeoning population beyond the initial flow of English colonists. As a result, for most of our past, settlement and immigration were deeply intertwined; the country's settler identity was directly bound to the idea of the United States as an immigrant nation.

Still, this link meant that such openness did come at an important cost. On the one hand, the territorial need for immigrants over time led to the incorporation of Europeans of various ethnic and religious stripes, extending the categories for who could count as American. On the other hand, it also hardened the divide between settler insiders and excluded outsiders. This was because settlers believed that expansion and economic control required claiming land from native communities and conscripting outsiders to engage in socially necessary but degraded menial labor. Thus, although new Europeans (even non-Protestants) often were immediately included as political and economic equals, Indians, blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese -- many of whom had long lived on the land -- were overwhelmingly denied the very same voting rights or access to property.

Today's proposed reforms by Tea Partiers resonate with these exclusionary elements of the country's history, in which Americans raised barriers for outsiders due to their ethnicity and parentage. At present, immigrants to the United States come primarily from those regions (parts of Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America) that settlers previously viewed as unworthy of political acceptance. Unsurprisingly, despite the 1965 elimination of explicit racial quotas, current immigrants have not enjoyed anything approaching the swift and full inclusion of their European predecessors. Confronted by extensive social disabilities and serving as cheap labor at the bottom rung of the American economy, many immigrants face daunting forms of inequality and discrimination. In the process, they often find themselves playing the familiar role of historically subordinated groups.

Instead of falling into this trap, Americans must draw from our distinctive past a modern challenge -- to find new ways of incorporating today's outsiders as equals and potential fellow citizens, regardless of background. Rejecting xenophobic impulses in immigration policy is a good start.

Aziz Rana, an Assistant Professor of Law at Cornell University, is the the author of "The Two Faces of American Freedom" now out from Harvard University Press.

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