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The Great Immigration Debate

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Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

This inscription, which is found on the Statue of Liberty, greeted years of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island to America. It describes the idealized view of the United States as a nation of immigrants, where anyone can achieve the American dream. However, does this accurately describe our immigration policy today? Our current policy is better described by this version, written by Chris Willey:

Give me your athletes, your scientists,

Your artists, writers, and actors,

Your politicians and businessmen.

Send these, the best and brightest, to me.

To these lies open the golden door:

You can keep the rest.

Under current U.S. immigration laws, it is not difficult for those immigrants labeled as desirable to receive admittance. The Immigration Act of 1990 created new categories of immigrants. "Within the employment category, first preference was given to aliens 'with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, multinational executives'...." It may be true that these creative and skilled people have just as much of a right to pursue the American dream as anyone else. But do we, as Americans, have the moral right to exclude the needy from our country?

Refugees have two basic choices. They can return to their home country, or they can try to settle in another country. Most refugees, however, cannot return home because conditions in their native country have not changed sufficiently to eliminate the problems from which they originally fled. Curiously enough, the United Nations Charter of Human Rights "bestows the right to leave a country, but other states are not obligated to allow entry." Basically, this says that no refugee may be forced to return to a country of persecution; however, no United Nations regulation specifies that another country must take the refugee in. This leaves the poor, equally unstable bordering countries to host millions of refugees. Over eighty percent of the world's fifteen million refugees are living in the less developed countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Resettlement is the only solution for those who cannot return to their own countries in the foreseeable future and are only welcome temporarily in the country to which they have fled; in other words for those who have nowhere to go. There are millions who would choose this option if there were countries that would take them. For these refuges, resettlement may mean the difference between life and death. It certainly is their only hope for a decent existence.

The United States does admit some refugees who were forced to leave their native lands because of persecution. However, it has become common to distinguish 'genuine refugees' from 'economic refugees' and to claim that the latter should receive no assistance. Article 14 of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." We allow people fleeing for their lives from politically unstable countries to be refugees.

The current immigration policy of the United States and other developed countries rests on the vague and usually unargued assumptions about the community's right to determine its membership. Do we, however, have such a right? From a consequentialist's point of view, immigration policy should be based squarely on the interests of all those affected. Where the interests of different parties conflict, we should be giving equal consideration to all interests, which would mean that more pressing or more fundamental interests take precedence over less fundamental interests. The utilitarian approach makes it very easy to justify admitting as many immigrants as possible. If we consider morality as a giant spreadsheet where everyone's pleasure and pain is recorded, it is quickly evident that sharing the wealth of a few well-to-do Americans will greatly increase the pleasure of millions of refugees.

Social contract theory recognizes that all people need the same basic things, that there can be limited supplies of these things, that none of us is strong enough to single-handedly prevail over everyone else, and that we cannot rely on the charity of others to support us. As a result of these four facts, the world in a state of nature would be a dreadful place. Each man would be forced to attempt to hoard the items he needs and prevent others from stealing them. A state of nature is what often results in refugee situations such as a civil insurrection. What would you do if tomorrow morning you woke up to discover that because of some great catastrophe the government had collapsed, so that there were no functioning laws, police, or courts? Under social contract theory, we thus agree to certain rules which allow us to live together peaceably. We live under these rules with the agreement that we will be treated equally, and the knowledge that others must follow the same rules as us. If the rules are not fair, we have a right to leave the contract. By refusing immigrants, as we do under the current United Nations Charter for Human Rights, we are denying them the right to leave.

As with any issue, however, there are two sides to the debate. One of the first arguments against increasing immigration is that an influx of immigrants will drain our resources. The United States already has poverty-stricken families who require aid, why should we admit more? Information on immigrants, however, shows them to be a group of people valuing work and education. A study conducted on ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lao immigrants found their unemployment rate dropped from ninety percent in the first months of resettlement to under thirty percent after three years in the country. Almost eighty percent of the children of these immigrants held GPAs in the A or B range. The refugee children not only excelled in local schools but performed as well or better than the national average on standardized achievement tests. A second study, concerning Mexican immigrants in the Los Angeles area, found that



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