“Once I had thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were America.” Oscar Handlin’s opening words to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Uprooted
“The President proposes to create a new Department of Homeland Security, the most significant transformation of the U.S. government in over half-century by largely transforming and realigning the current confusing patchwork of government activities into a single department whose primary mission is to protect our homeland. The creation of a Department of Homeland Security is one more key step in the President’s national strategy for homeland security (emphasis added)."
-From the Department of Homeland Security June 2002 - George W. Bush
If America is “a nation of immigrants” as is often stated, then perhaps no single law has had an impact on this nation as that arising from the transfer of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (formerly the INS) and its responsibilities to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. At that moment, immigration into the US stopped being an economic issue with national security considerations, and instead became a national security issue with economic considerations.
Much of this impact resulted from the sudden change in attitude in the security-obsessed post-9/11 America. The symbolic and actual impact that came about when our immigration policy was put into the hands of a department “whose primary mission is to protect our homeland” cannot be underestimated. In order to fully appreciate the unintended impact of this transfer to the DHS, it is important to put both functions into a proper historical perspective: whereas historically immigration was mainly viewed through an economic (and to a lesser extent humanitarian) lens, since 2002 immigration has been viewed almost strictly through a homeland security lens.
In fact, it is fascinating to see the historical evolution of immigration from that perspective. The Immigration Act of 1891 created the Commissioner of Immigration within the Treasury Department. Over the course of the following 50 years, these matters were transferred within the US government, first to the United States Department of Commerce and Labor, then to the Department of Labor, and then finally to the Department of Justice. With the creation of the INS in the 1930s, the policy issues related to immigration remained mainly economic in nature, even while under the purview of the Department of Justice.
Throughout those years, the United States was the main beneficiary of political and economic havoc throughout the world. Whether European, Asian Latin American or African, anytime the rest of the world suffered from chaos, the upper and middle-classes of affected countries escaped the ensuing confusion, tyranny, property confiscation or nationalization and brought their talents, assets and intellectual property to the United States. Time and time again, the so called “brain drain” anywhere else in the world has turned into an adrenaline shot of talent, capital, and entrepreneurial spirit for the United States.
The periodic flare-ups around the world that led to such infusion of talent, capital and energy into the US economy, was a big contributing factor to the development of the “American Century”. The 20thCentury, saw American dominance in emerging industries, creation of economic efficiencies, and breathtaking new grounds in science, engineering, film-making and a plethora of other fields, many of which were led by immigrants and their children.
It is therefore ironic that the chaos and confusion in the United States at the beginning of the 21stCentury, following the 9/11 attacks by foreign-born terrorists who were nevertheless in the US legally, would have the opposite effect. By absorbing immigration into the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security, the US made the conscious decision to change the way it viewed immigration. No longer would immigration be viewed in light of economic issues that had political or security implications. From that point forward, immigration and homeland security would be entangled in an inseparable mesh, where one would no longer be viewed without the other.
Paradoxically, two of the most hawkishly perceived presidents of the modern era, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, neither of whom can be accused of being light on national security, were also the most liberal (in the traditional sense of the word) on immigration. Ronald Reagan signed into law an immigration bill in 1986 which cleared the path for 3 million illegal aliens to gain citizenship. Similarly, George W. Bush, who had received a staggering 40% of the Latin vote in 2004 and had obviously overseen the creation of the DHS, nevertheless did his best to address the difficult issue of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the US. But George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both understood that an America that opened its doors to foreigners was a better America, while one that made it more difficult for the world’s entrepreneurs, laborers, physicians and merchants to enter, was somehow a less idealistic version of the nation in which they both deeply believed.
John F. Kennedy understood this point in his time. In his posthumous book, “A Nation of Immigrants”, Kennedy argued for an America that placed immigration policy at the forefront of its national and foreign policies. Instead of the national-origin quota system that he so abhorred, initially in his book, and later as President, Kennedy argued for a more robust and even-handed policy that took into account three basic criteria: 1) the skill level of the immigrant, 2) the reunification of families, and 3) priority of registration (i.e. first come, first served).
Kennedy appreciated the fact that the ideal of America and a liberal immigration policy were inseparable: “The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.”
While it is unlikely that immigration will ever again be viewed in light of its idealistic place in American history, without a focus on national security issues, all lovers of the American ideal would do well to keep that vision alive, and not allow the pendulum of national security concerns destroy Tocqueville and Handlin’s vision of America.