The Long ViewLife in a very young civilization

Published 16 December 2005

In 1935 FDR spoke at a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. He told a rapt audience that those who landed at Ellis Island “were the men and women who had the supreme courage to strike out for themselves, to abandon language and relatives, to start at the bottom without influence, without money, and without knowledge of life in a very young civilization.” How different FDR’s appreciation — indeed, admiration — of immigrants to the United States was when compared to what we hear today from Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) or Tom Trancredo (R-Colorado). It can be argued that FDR was referring to legal immigrants while the sponsors of the tough House bill on immigration are addressing illegal immigrants. This distinction is not without merit, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the immigrants FDR was referring to and the immigrants the Sensenbrenner bill addresses do have something important in common: They came to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their families by working hard and benefiting from opportunities largely unavailable in their home countries. If the United States is a more dynamic and creative country than the sclerotic and stagnating societies of Europe it is largely due to the rejuvenating and energizing effects of immigration.

The problem of illegal immigration must be dealt with because no country can tolerate for long the presence in its midst of some eleven million people about whom we know next to nothing and who have very few rights. The Sensenbrenner way of making illegal stay in the United States a federal crime is not the way to do it. Turning eleven million hard working people into instant felons is not only unconscionable, it is counterproductive. It is thus good to see two Senators — Illinois Democrat Barack Obama and Florida Republican Mel Martinez — join in a call for a more effective and humane approach to illegal immigration. Both Obama and Martinez have compelling personal stories to tell about coming to America, and their sober, sensible, and nuanced approach is a welcome and eminently superior alternative to the disagreeable voice we now hear emanating so loudly from the more fevered precincts of American politics.

-read more in Barack Obama’s and Mel Martinez’s Wall Street Journal article