Wednesday, October 13, 2010

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

by Aziz Rana

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.