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Getting To The Root Of The Immigration Debate

by R. Blake Chisam

On Tuesday, August 22, 2006, the Washington Post published two articles on the effects of illegal immigration that are worth mentioning. The first article, entitled "Cost of Senate Immigration Bill Put at $126 Billion," discusses a recent CBO study about the budget effects of the Senate's immigration reform bill. The second, "Pa. City Puts Illegal Immigrants on Notice," discusses the new ordinance in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, that, among other things, imposes a $1,000-per-day fine on any landlord who rents to an illegal immigrant, revokes for five years the business license of any employer who hires an illegal immigrant, declares English to be the city's official language, and forbids employees to translate documents into another language without official authorization.

When read together, the two articles provide yet another glimpse into the complexities of and madness spawned by America's illegal immigration problem. The two houses of Congress remain at loggerheads over what to do, while Americans want action.

As the Hazleton, Pa., example indicates, local and state governments increasingly appear to be jumping into the policy debate. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, over 500 pieces of legislation concerning immigrants have been introduced in state legislatures around the country in 2006. At least 57 bills have been enacted in 2006, according to the NCSL. A handful of bills have been vetoed, and several more are awaiting gubernatorial action. "While legislation covered a wide variety of topics, many states focused on employment, trafficking, public benefits, education, identification, voting rights and procedures, trafficking, law enforcement, and legal services," the NCSL said. 

Near as I can tell, the illegal immigration debate seems to be focused around economic, security and "rule of law" issues. While such issues deserve debate and may, in fact, militate toward taking action, the data relating to these issues does not, as yet, appear to support policies that would commit substantial federal resources to restricting immigration. (The CBO estimates, for example, that the Senate's immigration bill (S. 2611) would cost taxpayers $126 billion over the next 10 years.)

"A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues," Theodore Roosevelt once said. The real issues in the immigration debate instead revolve around fear and misunderstanding, as well as issues relating to American nationalism and sovereignty. On balance, the public discourse on immigration reform has had precious little to say about these issues.

Comprehensive regulation of immigration was a twentieth century invention. Although passports and border controls did emerge before the twentieth century, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that recognizable borders developed, along with the requirement that people use passports and visas to cross those borders. The world of nation-states managed for at least three centuries without comprehensive immigration regulation.

There is a close relationship between immigration laws and national identity. Immigration laws also factor in definitions of national communities. A link exists between immigration law provisions and the projection of sovereign national power.

Americans, I believe, intuitively recognize these things. They seem to feel that mass migrations of undocumented populations pose a threat to modern American identity. This is not a new feeling among the American public. Benjamin Franklin wrote about his concern over a mass influx of Germans into Philadelphia in the eighteenth century.

Such reactions have many causes, from nationalism to nativism to outright racism. At core, however, they all are based on fear. An influx of peoples who differ from "us" makes the world around us seem different. A decade or more ago, who would have thought that when checking out of Wal-Mart, we would be asked if we wanted the transaction to be conducted in English or Spanish. Change engenders fear. It makes us seem less in control of the world around us.

It's time we spoke openly about this fear. We don't because we are ashamed of it. We're not supposed to talk about such things. To speak openly of fear is to admit weakness or, worse, to expose ourselves to criticism about being intolerant or even racist.

In fact, fear is a natural human emotion in the face of change and the fear and anxiety change brings. We owe it to ourselves to raise our natural emotions to the fore of the policy debate, if for no other reason than to get it out in the open so we can talk about it.

Once we open such a discussion, I suspect that we would find that our fears are largely unfounded. America has survived mass migrations before. We've flourished in the face of such migrations.

In addition, by talking freely about the emotional responses of Americans to migration, we may be able to see what data we do have in a new light. For example, most experts agree that the economic effects of immigration, both legal and illegal, are a wash. There are both positive and negative effects. Little doubt exists that a lack of border control could permit the illegal entry of those who wish to cause harm, whether they be terrorists, drug traffickers or human traffickers. Yet, most people who enter America illegally are benign and are coming only to pursue the American dream.

If we apply reason after having admitted and discussed our legitimate emotional concerns we will be able to fashion a truly comprehensive immigration policy that addresses all of our concerns and is based on factors that promote America's legitimate interests in protecting her sovereignty, protecting her security, bolster her economic growth and facilitate her international humanitarian obligations.

Americans, and countless others throughout the world, have come to see America as unique, as the city on the hill Winthrop alluded to. In its best sense, America is seen as a shining beacon of freedom and liberty. “I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” President Reagan said in his farewell address in 1989. “But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

President Reagan’s image of the American city upon a hill ought to resonate with us today, particularly in the globalized world in which we live. America is stronger and more secure when she promotes “commerce and creativity.” In other words, America’s national interests are closely allied with her and her citizens’ engagement in the global economy.

A world in which free and fair trade is our common language and in which commerce is the principal form of relations between nations, companies and individuals is a safer world. Peoples joined in the healthy bonds of free and fair trade simply don’t shoot at one another.

Immigration policies must ensure that the doors in the walls remain “open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Through rational immigration policies containing a balance of effective security measures and incentives to attract migrants that are wiling to conform to our core values, America can better promote commerce and creativity, and she can prove herself to be a city on a hill, which projects the great light of America’s best values to a dark and troubled world.

We've got to speak of the dark fears clouding our vision today. If we don't, we won't be able to recapture our vision as the shining city on the hill.

About The Author

R. Blake Chisam practices exclusively in the area of Immigration and Nationality Law as a partner in the firm of Chisam & Majid. He advises organizations with respect to immigration-related policy, employment, civil rights, and health care law matters, including related white-collar criminal and regulatory compliance issues. Mr. Chisam is an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association ("AILA"), for which he currently serves on its Business Litigation committee, and the American Bar Association ("ABA"). In October 2000, Mr. Chisam and his partner Jasmine A. Majid were, awarded the prestigious Meritorious Public Service Award from the Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which was presented by then-Attorney General Janet Reno, in recognition of their "tireless and distinguished pro bono efforts on behalf of unrepresented aliens detained by the … Immigration and Naturalization Service." Mr. Chisam has lectured on immigration law to law students at universities across the U.S., and he is a frequent author and lecturer to professional associations, academic symposia and community groups. He is admitted to practice in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and a host of federal courts. Mr. Chisam is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book "Immigration Practice 2006-2007 Edition.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.