Immigration Part 2: Absurd philosophies and immigration

by Wim de Vriend

So the simple answer to Eric Shierman’s question was that yes, you can have too much of a ‘good thing’, and that applies to immigration as well.  And if someone’s “free-market, limited-government worldview” causes him to favor unlimited immigration, that person is merely revealing a central problem with all worldviews.  They are ideologies, no more than philosophical constructs based on assumptions that may not be valid in the first place.  And while the application of pure logic to those assumptions may lead the philosopher to interesting conclusions, those may be even less valid.  As the Roman writer Cicero already observed, back in the first century B.C.: “There is nothing so absurd or some philosopher has said it.” It’s a shame too, that those who really needed Cicero’s wisdom have always been the least inclined to take it.  All of the 20th century’s biggest mass-murderers, with a combined victim estimate of well over a hundred million, were ideological fanatics eager and willing to shape the world according to their grand visions. 

The ‘free-market, limited-government’ philosophy has had a good run, because as a philosophy it contains much truth, and the world is a better place for it.  But to think that it remains eternally and universally applicable, including to an issue like immigration – that’s where ideologues slide off the rails, and that always produces a train wreck.

A fitting analogy to illustrate the limits of applying economic theories to the real world may be Ricardo’s ‘comparative advantage’.  Ricardo’s theory contains much truth too, but we have learned that its unlimited application may cause real problems, up to and including civic unrest.  Ricardo started with the observable truth that when two people voluntarily trade, both will gain, so this was applied to countries’ imports and exports.  Let’s say that country W produces large harvests of wheat at low cost, and country T produces good TVs at very reasonable prices.  Both countries will benefit by importing each other’s specialties.  Country W will benefit because even though it could start making TVs they would cost more, and Country T benefits because its climate is not conducive to growing wheat but its TVs are a great deal.  Conclusion: Everybody is better off.

No doubt Ricardo’s ‘comparative advantage’ theory has helped eliminate many trade barriers, which in turn has generated the enormous growth in international trade of recent decades, while reducing the cost of innumerable consumer products for Americans.  That too has been a ‘good thing’ – but for American consumers more than for producers.  It has caused large payroll declines in some sectors, and it will take time for things to balance, because the American work force is not as mobile as theories about free-market equilibriums assume.  It’s obvious that long-term unemployment, factory ghost towns, social decay and domestic turmoil can be brought on by unlimited free trade, and there are also national defense concerns.  The country’s security may require that it continue producing its own steel and armaments and aircraft carriers and all the other things for which it would be hazardous to rely on other countries, especially potentially hostile ones.  I don’t know of any historian who disputes that the main reason the United States was victorious in World War II was its huge industrial capacity that could quickly be put to work producing all the things that the war required.  Without that capacity we cannot expect to win another major war.  Oh, sorry; I forgot a lot of libertarians are against war.  Well, who isn’t? But there will be times …

Lewd and Lascivious

And returning from Ricardo to the topic of immigration, who would be better equipped to discuss it than an immigrant – somebody like me?

It was the great economist Milton Friedman who qualified his libertarian position in favor of unlimited immigration by observing that it would not work in a welfare state.[1] That view also seems to have underlain the laws, some dating back to the 19th century, that governed my own immigration, in the 1960s.  That convoluted system had been founded in response to the massive waves of immigration starting around 1880, especially of destitute Europeans from Mediterranean countries and from Russia, including many Jews fleeing the pogroms of the Czar, because the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was based on that reality.   All those new groups looked as if they would drastically change the composition of the American population.

Despite the claims and hopes of the multiculturalists, it’s a universal human tendency to favor those most like ourselves.  Babies of all races are that way quite early on; it’s a phenomenon that may sound familiar to students of social evolution, since for most of human history people lived in tribes, not nation-states, and outsiders were distrusted.[2] The American population that had formed by the mid-19th century has often been described as WASP, or White Anglo-Saxon & Protestant, though not with total accuracy.  For one thing, the country had already absorbed former territories of France, Mexico and Spain, which contained a lot of Catholics.  Also, in the 17th and 18th centuries Catholics oppressed in England had arrived, along with Catholic Scottish highlanders.  And starting around 1840, famine in Ireland had driven large numbers of Irish Catholics across the Atlantic.  Those impoverished people had no recourse to government assistance, but the Catholic church did a great deal for them, and they needed it.  Their hardships in Ireland had made them susceptible to mental illness, alcoholism, and aggressive behavior.[3] Unlike other nationalities, they did not take advantage of the opportunities to acquire land but the men worked in the heavy industries that were then starting up, like coal and steel, and the women often worked as domestic servants.  For decades the Irish faced prejudice and discrimination.  And the corresponding growth of Catholicism in the 19th century had led to anti-Catholic riots and the burning of churches, convents and seminaries, along with the formation of anti-Catholic lobbies; it was how the Ku Klux Klan got its start.[4] By 1870, however, even the Irish celebration of St.  Patrick’s Day was gaining popular acceptance.[5]

This is not to defend anti-Catholicism, but in those days it was still fervent in Europe too.  And many in the American WASP majority remembered that their ancestors had left the old country because of Catholic oppression.   This helps explain why 19th century American Protestant theologians expressed great disdain for the Pope, his ‘perversion’ of the Gospel and his ‘usurpation’ of the Christian faith.[6]  But with the passage of time all this hostility passed, as shown by the election of nominally Catholic John Kennedy as president in 1959, and his family’s near-deification as American royalty.  So the history of American Catholicism is an illustration of how a large influx of apparently incompatible strangers can evoke serious unrest, but it also shows that time can heal all wounds, if in the end the new arrivals can adjust, as they did, quite speedily.  By the 1880s the antagonism against the Irish had started to ebb.  But then came the Italians, Greeks and east-Europeans.

The arrival of those tens of teeming millions between 1880 and 1920, much larger numbers than ever before, convinced Americans that it was time for a slowdown, so the country could absorb and integrate the new arrivals, many of whom were not only impoverished as the Irish had been, but also illiterate and in poor health.  The process started with the Immigration Act of 1882 which “…  blocked the entry of idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge.” [7] Further restrictions were added in 1903, 1907 and 1917, including a literacy requirement and a medical examination.  Finally, after World War I had already reduced the inflow, the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 introduced the first national origins system, with (now smaller) numbers of visas given out to each nationality, based on its share of the US census – clearly an attempt to maintain the WASP status quo, such as it was.[8]

Further additions to emigration law came during the Cold War following World War II, altogether culminating in a process that seemed a bit overdone.  I had to answer long lists of highly paranoid questions: “Are you coming to the United States to overthrow the government? Are you a polygamist?  Have you engaged in prostitution or are likely to in future?  Engaged in espionage or intend to once in the US?  Been a member of or affiliated with the Communist Party …  ?  Are you coming to the United States to engage in lewd, lascivious or other immoral sexual practices?  Obviously it was a fiendishly clever ploy to trap foreign perverts and terrorists and communists, although one tiny weakness may have been the assumption that they would be frank about their wicked agendas.

More important than sexual or political proclivities, however, seem to have been financial ones.  That’s because other paperwork made clear that immigrants like I would not be allowed to sponge off the public purse.  You had to have an American sponsor with some means, who guaranteed to the INS that he or she, not the government, would support you if you became indigent.  And that sponsor would be held to it.

That was a key difference with today, when the American welfare state seems eager to subsidize whoever drops in.  Not long ago a fellow-immigrant told me that the sponsor requirements are still on the books, but are being ignored.  That being the case, the usual arguments about the benefits of open immigration are clearly misleading, based as they are on the contributions of all those new guests to Uncle Sam’s economy, while ignoring how much they pick his pockets:

Just over half of immigrant households in the U.S.  have received food stamps, housing or Medicaid benefits on the taxpayer’s dime in the last few years …  The rate is significantly higher than in U.S. citizen households …  the number of immigrants on welfare was highest in households with Central American and Mexican migrants, where 73 percent received benefits.  “In 2012, 51 percent of households headed by an [illegal or legal] immigrant reported that they used at least one welfare program during the year, compared to 30 percent of native households,” the report stated.  [9]

This clearly shows that not only the self-support conditions for legal immigrants are being ignored, but even the illegal ones get government bennies.

No doubt anybody advocating an end to this will be condemned as insensitive and uncharitable – with other people’s money.  But we should remember that the greatest economic growth in America occurred when new residents could not count on any government help, except for the opportunity to acquire cheap land and, later, a job in expanding new industries hungry for labor.  Charity was left to private initiative including, as we have seen, the churches.  As John Quincy Adams announced on behalf of the State Department, in 1820:

We will keep out nobody.  Arrivals will suffer no disadvantages as aliens.  But they can expect no advantages either.  Native-born and foreign-born face equal opportunities.  What happens to them depends entirely on their individual ability and exertions, and on good fortune.[10]

In US population statistics, immigrants are usually described as the foreign-born share of the American population.  Foreign-born include legal immigrants who have acquired US citizenship – like myself – along with those who have not.  They also include temporary visitors and illegal immigrants.  In 2000, out of a total population of 282.2 million, the United States had 31.1 million foreign-born, or 11.0%.[11] By 2015 the total population had risen to 320 million, 43.3 million of whom were now foreign-born.  This meant the foreign-born share of the population had had risen to 13.5%, from 11.0% 15 years earlier.  In numbers, from 2000 to 2015 the foreign-born population had grown by 12.2 million, from 31.1 million to 43.4 million, or by almost 40%.  Meanwhile the U.S.  population as a whole had also grown, but by only by 37.8 million, or 13.4%,.  Of course, that increase in the total population included the aforementioned increase in the foreign-born of 12.2 million, leaving a “natural” population increase of only 25.6 million.  Obviously the composition of the American population was changing rapidly, with distinct downsides being noted, and voices raised in favor of reducing the inflow, not to stop it altogether but once again to allow the country to catch its breath, as had been done before.

Interestingly, during the previous period of high levels of immigration that led to the wave of restrictive legislation around 1900, the highest levels of foreign-born as a percentage of the total population occurred from 1870 to 1910, fluctuating between 13.3% and 14.7%.  As mentioned, by 2015 it had reached 13.5%, so we have returned to the days of mass immigration of a century ago.  But at 43.3 million people in 2015, the present number exceeds that in 1919, which was 13.5 million, by 29.8 million.  It is about 2.2 times as large.  [12]

Next, Part 3: Warlike Walloons, Japanese and Poles

[1] “Friedman on Immigration and the Welfare STate”, Open Borders –

[2] “Babies show racial bias, study finds”, The Telegraph, April 16, 2014 – – and:

“How Babies See Race – By nine months old, babies differentiate faces of their own race better than those in other races”, Scientific American, September 1, 2012 –

[3] “The Irish in America: 1840s – 1930s” University of Virginia –

[4] “Catholic Church in the United States” Wikipedia –

[5] “Irish Immigrants in America during the 19th Century”, The Kinsella Homepage –

[6] James M.  Wilson, A.M: Civil Government – An Exposition of Romans 13: 1–7.  1853: Philadelphia: William S.  Young, 173 Race Street.  Republished by Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 9, February 25 to March 3, 2007.  For instance, Wilson describes “…  the Pope’s claim to reign in the church, and over the nations” as “usurpation” of God’s authority.  He condemns the Pope’s government of the Papal states “…  under which the Papal States groan”.  He asks rhetorically: “Who will say that that man is a “servant of Christ”, even though he …  disregards the law of Christ, perverts the gospel, and tramples on the rights of his people? What Protestant, for example, acknowledges the Pope of Rome as a “servant of Christ?” And yet he has his millions of votaries, and claims to be Christ’s vicegerent.” He states that “The sincere Christian …  is bound by, and ought to feel the obligations of the divine law and the responsibilities of the Christian character, in every place, relation, and act, — and can, of course, no more sanction or do anything to sustain error, heresy, or wrong, blasphemy, idolatry, or oppression, Socinianism, popery, or slaveholding, when employed in civil or political functions …” Bold type added.  Notice that this essay dates from 1853, some years before the Civil War. 

See also: Samuel W.  Barnum.  Romanism as It Is (1872), an anti-Catholic compendium -

and Rev.  Isaac J.  Lansing, M.A.  Romanism and the Republic: A Discussion of the Purposes, Assumptions, Principles and Methods of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy (1890)

[7] “Early American Immigration Policies”, USCIS –

[8] “Era of Restriction”, USCIS –

[9] “Immigrants On Welfare: Central Americans And Mexicans Get US Food Stamps, Medicaid At High Rates”, International Business Times, September 3, 2016.  –

[10] Niles Weekly Register, 18 (1820).  Cited in Paul Johnson, op.  cit., p.  299, who mentions that a complete facsimile of Niles was printed in 1947.

[11] Source: Migration Policy Institute.

[12] U.S.  Immigrant Population and Share over Time, 1850-Present – Migration Policy Institute,