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Immigration, liberté et caractère américain

Immigration, liberté et caractère américain

12 minutes
29 mars 2011
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
–Ezra Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty

Immigration has become the most politically and emotionally charged domestic issue in the United States—which is ironic, given that this country was founded upon and built by immigrants.

Millions have demonstrated in cities across the United States in favor of accommodation, amnesty, or citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Meanwhile citizen ”Minutemen” patrol the southern border to stem the nightly human flood from Mexico, as talk show hosts and bloggers call for punishing or deporting those who did not secure government permission to come here.

The principal blame for this crisis rests not on the backs of illegals, however, but on the shoulders of federal government, for its decades of negligence, incompetence, and worse. Now the people are demanding that policymakers sort out a mess for which there are no easy solutions. The Senate and House of Representatives are deeply divided over how to handle the problem; President Bush is offering a compromise that pleases none of the parties.

The raging passions on all sides of the debate now obscure the economic issues and moral principles at the root of the problem. Without a clear and honest understanding of these, any attempt to resolve it will simply perpetuate confusion and injustice. A rational, responsible, individualist approach can lay down the moral markers to guide the public and policymakers in the choices ahead.


A unique and defining aspect of America is the fact that this country was populated and built over a short few centuries by millions of immigrants from countries with different languages, religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Between 1860 and 1930, the foreign-born portion of the U.S. population averaged 13.6 percent. As recently as 1910, some 14.8 percent, or better than one in seven inhabitants of the United States, was foreign-born. Taking into account native-born spouses of immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, the portion of households and families that included immigrants was probably well over half the population.

Policymakers, not immigrants, deserve our wrath.

By 1970, the foreign-born as a portion of population had fallen to 4.7 percent, but has been climbing steadily since then—to 6.2 percent in 1980, 7.9 percent in 1990, and 10.4 percent in 2000. By 2003 it was an estimated 33.5 million people, or 11.7 percent of a population of 300 million.

The largest portion of foreign-born—53 percent—come from Latin America, principally from Mexico, which shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States. Recent protests by illegal immigrants have had an overwhelmingly Latino complexion. Still, some 25 percent of the foreign-born come from Asia and 13.7 percent from Europe.

Figures on illegal immigrants by their nature are difficult to come by; about 12 million is the best estimate; the real number might be less but likely is more.


To define the moral parameters for the treatment of illegal immigrants, we first must ask the fundamental questions, “Why do they come and should they come?”

In most cases, poor Mexicans—and individuals in other countries as well—face a choice. They can either stay in their own country and wallow in poverty, watching their families suffer, with little opportunity for a prosperous, happy life; or they can take action to make the best life possible for themselves and their loved ones.

The rational self-interest of each individual is the standard of morality. In accordance with a moral code based on this standard, individuals should strive through their own efforts to create the means of their survival and flourishing, neither initiating the use of force or fraud against others nor tolerating violations of his own liberty. For Mexicans trapped in destitution, seeing to their north the United States—the land of greatest economic opportunity, with a history of welcoming immigrants—the only moral choice is to come here.

Poverty and lack of education, political connections, or savvy make it impossible for many individuals to secure legal permission to immigrate to the United States. It would be morally contemptible self-sacrifice for them to wait passively for years until American or Mexican bureaucracies give them the right pieces of paper allowing them to come, when they can simply sneak across the border. While they are breaking American law, they are not violating the rights of anyone else. They come here and exchange their labor for money, acting in accordance with the moral principle of free and just trade.

Any American in such a situation would do the same; indeed, it is this spirit that makes an American.


Many Americans might object that these millions broke the law when they came to the United States illegally. Shouldn’t we be angry with them, and shouldn’t they be punished for their misdeeds? But what sort of laws have they actually broken?

An American is anyone who understands that achieving the best in life requires facing risks.

The purpose of law is to help protect the lives, liberty, and property of citizens from the initiation of force or fraud by others. Some laws bar assaults, thefts, rapes, and similar direct acts of force. Other laws set out procedures that governments must follow when dealing with citizens or prosecuting crimes. These latter are meant both to allow for the conviction of the guilty but, just as important, to protect the innocent.

Still other laws are administrative procedures—for example, securing a driver’s license, registering real estate or a business, and obtaining a passport. These allow the government to protect property and contracts, to ensure that you are not endangering others by not knowing the rules of the road, and to provide safeguards for you when you’re overseas.

When an individual enters the country illegally, that act alone does not initiate force against others, and thus does not as such violate any other individual’s liberties. It is hardly appropriate to direct anger at individuals who are trying only to better their condition by seeking opportunities to exchange their services with willing customers. Such actions are virtuous and should be celebrated.

But it is also true that the rule of law is crucial for any free society. Laws set the objective standards by which we deal with one another and relate to government. Without laws, the power of government would be exercised arbitrarily, and relationships between individuals would be based ultimately on force and fraud.

Sadly, decades of negligence by the U.S. government—its refusal to police the borders or to offer an easy way for honest immigrants to come here legally—has created the current mess. When laws and policies are based on the wrong principles, they create real-world problems. Policymakers, not immigrants, deserve our wrath.

But before devising ways to remedy the situation, we must clear up other confusions, so that bad policies won’t be replaced by even worse ones.


One objection to large numbers of immigrants—legal or otherwise—is that they take jobs from Americans. But this is not true.

A job is a contract between two parties by which one promises to pay the other for services rendered. In a free country, individuals have the right to offer their services, and to collect whatever wages and benefits they can secure, as long as the employer voluntarily consents. For their part, employers have the right to hire whomever they wish on whatever terms are agreed to voluntarily by both parties. Because a job is a voluntary contract, no American can claim a “right” to any particular job, on any specific set of terms of employment. An immigrant therefore can’t “take” from you what doesn’t belong to you. If a prospective employer wants to hire a recent Mexican immigrant (for the moment, let’s assume a legal one), that’s solely the business of the employer and the immigrant.

But doesn’t the massive influx of immigrants depress wages? If millions of Mexicans come to the United States, won’t our average wages drop to the levels of those in Mexico?


It is true that, in the short run and in particular sectors of the economy, an influx of labor can depress wages. If you can hire an immigrant to paint your house for $7 per hour by simply pulling up to your local Home Depot and asking one, the wages of the guys at the local home repair business who charge $15 per hour might feel the downward pressure. Fine! That’s how a market works. Competition for labor means that consumers will benefit from lower prices.

The principled self-interest of each individual is the standard of morality.

More fundamentally, people are the ultimate source of all values. It is we human beings who plant and harvest crops, package and transport goods, build and manage stores and restaurants, check out customers or wait on tables. In a free society, people are an asset. The more people, the more wealth created, the more goods and services produced, the more you can obtain for your own goods and services when you trade them with others, and the greater your purchasing power.

Some 12 million illegal immigrants in this country are building houses, tending gardens, cleaning hotel rooms, and much more. They are adding to the economy and freeing up 12 million other workers to do other things for which they are competitively better suited. While the recent one-day strike by immigrants in some cities inconvenienced many of us, it was an eloquent Atlas Shrugged -style illustration that these are producers who help us by helping themselves.


The most serious problem with illegal immigrants has nothing to do with their taking jobs from Americans. Rather, the problem lies with the welfare state—with its redistribution of wealth and mandating of special privileges by government.

Unlike a free market, in which all individuals are producers of goods and services who trade with their fellows, a welfare state takes from taxpaying producers to give to those who haven’t produced. But when they work for cash, “off-the-books,” illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. That’s why the public and policymakers tend to see illegal immigrants not as producers but as net recipients of taxpayer-funded services, such as education, food, and healthcare. Clearly, this might make illegal immigrants a net burden on taxpayers, receiving more taxpayer handouts than they pay for. Further, babies born in the United States to illegal immigrants are by law American citizens and thus eligible for many welfare-state handouts.

A particular burden is put on American hospitals. In 1986, Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires all general hospitals to maintain emergency rooms that provide emergency services in every specialty that they offer.  These emergency rooms are further required to treat all patients who come in, whether they can pay their bills or not. And the law makes no provision for compensating hospitals or physicians for patients who cannot pay.

While this law does not aim to help illegal immigrants specifically, in practice more citizens and legal workers are covered by some sort of medical insurance, while illegals tend to have no insurance and little if any money for medical services. As a result, border-state hospitals are being flooded with illegal immigrants, who receive expensive services and very often do not pay their bills. In effect, the federal government virtually forces doctors to provide their services, and if the patient cannot pay—too bad! That is a de facto form of conscription and slavery. As a result, hospitals are going out of business and more and more physicians are simply retiring early.

Many analysts conclude that illegal immigrants are thus a net financial burden on the country, even given their contributions to the economy. Others argue that because illegals often can’t collect all of the benefits to which citizens are entitled, on balance the country benefits by their presence, even with the welfare system.

Whatever the truth of these counter-claims, the immigration problem clearly exposes the injustice and impracticality of the welfare state.


After the September 11th terrorist attacks, border security took on a new importance. After all, if millions of Mexicans can simply waltz over the border into the United States, al Qaeda members presumably could do the same. But—as the recent arrests of Islamist plotters in Ontario suggest—chances are more likely that terrorists will cross America’s 4,000-mile border with Canada; some have already been caught trying. After all, there are more individuals from Muslim countries in multi-ethnic Canada, and it is easier for them to blend in there than in Mexico.

My grandpop had traveled to America several times before 1930 to find work.

Even without the terrorist threat, however, immigrants with criminal backgrounds pose a danger to Americans. Of course, similar concerns were expressed a century ago about Italian immigrants—the majority of whom were law-abiding—and the dangers that Mafiosi would slip in among them. A similar problem came to the public’s attention in 1980 with the Mariel boat lift from Cuba, when Fidel Castro cleaned out his jails, dumping criminals as well as honest refugees fleeing his tyranny onto boats bound for America.

The obvious solution is better border security, to separate criminals from those who simply want to earn their way. But if this cannot be done, a broader question arises: Can a government legitimately act to restrict or prevent entry to all individuals from certain countries, rather than barring only those individuals with criminal or terrorist backgrounds who pose a clear danger?

The purpose of the U.S. government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of American citizens. But there is no Constitutional requirement that the American government put the protection of the rights of people in other countries on a par with or even ahead of Americans.

Yes, America has been a shining city on a hill, an exemplar for others of what a free country should be. Therefore, we’ve traditionally welcomed those seeking personal freedom and economic opportunity. And America should always be willing to give asylum to those who face persecution in other countries.

But the government could bar immigration without violating the rights of Americans under circumstances recently seen in the relatively free countries of Western Europe, which face a very real threat to freedom from immigrants arriving from Muslim countries. Terrorist attacks in London and Madrid, assassinations in the Netherlands, riots across France, and explicitly anti-freedom demonstrations in Denmark and elsewhere occur because of a significant and growing immigrant population.

Consider an extreme example. What if a small, democratic country—for example, Luxembourg, with a population of less than a half-million—were faced with thousands of would-be immigrants from Muslim countries who were vocal members of a “Make Europe Muslim” movement? What if the goal of these immigrants was to have enough fundamentalist Muslims move into small countries so that they could quickly become the majority, and then use existing democratic institutions to set up Islamic theocracies?

The government of tiny Luxembourg probably would act to protect the rights of its citizens by banning immigrants from Muslim countries. If the government couldn’t sort out the intolerant Islamists from the tolerant immigrants, it would be acting reasonably to protect its own citizens by simply restricting or barring immigrants from certain countries.

In a slower and less dramatic form, Western Europeans face a situation in which liberty could be curtailed because of a large immigrant population committed to savage and medieval practices. That’s why many European countries are tightening immigration restrictions.

Fortunately, immigrants from Muslim countries in the United States have assimilated better than those in Europe, no doubt in part because of America’s “melting pot” tradition. Only a small fringe of Muslims in America side openly with Islamists. And in fact it is valuable to have immigrants from Muslim countries in America who accept freedom and tolerance, and who try to convince their former compatriots in the old country of such principles.

But in principle, if the situation changes—if there are more terrorist attacks in the United States, or if more new immigrants openly profess an anti-freedom philosophy—it might become too difficult to sort out those who seek only the opportunities of freedom from those who would subvert freedom. The culture and beliefs taught in Saudi Arabia, for example, are virtually indistinguishable from the worst aspects of those promulgated in Nazi Germany. In such circumstances, the U.S. government might legitimately ban virtually all immigrants from certain Muslim countries.


Apart from the ideological and terrorist dangers posed by Islamist immigrants, some Americans also fear that immigrants pose a cultural threat to the country. They worry that many groups speaking different languages and harboring un-American values and attitudes could create a Balkanized America that would translate politically into a loss of freedom.

What about this subtler, culturally based security threat? Such arguments were heard in the past about the Irish, Italians, Eastern European Jews, and others. But in retrospect we know that immigrants constituted a self-selected group that strengthened American culture.

It is hardly appropriate to direct anger at individuals who are trying only to better their condition.

To put such arguments in perspective, I offer an example that I published in a Cato Institute op-ed several years ago: the example of my own grandfather. Giustino DiCamillo arrived in America in 1930 with my grandma, aunts, and an uncle to start their lives as Americans. My mom was born the next year. They, along with millions of other immigrant families, represented the best of America.

But what does that phrase mean? What is an American?

An American is anyone who loves life enough to want the best that it has to offer. An American is not automatically satisfied with his current situation. My grandpop wanted to be more than a poor, landless tenant farmer, no better off than his ancestors.

An American is anyone who understands that to achieve the best in life requires action, work, effort. Americans aren’t idle daydreamers; they take the initiative. My grandpop had traveled to America several times before 1930 to find work, establish himself, and make it possible to bring over his family and realize his dreams.

An American is anyone who understands that achieving the best in life requires facing risks. Immigrants have no assurance of success in a new land with different habits, institutions and language. Like my grandpop, they leave behind friends, relatives, and familiar places, often risking their lives to cross vast oceans and hostile countries to reach their new homes. But they, like all Americans, understand that the timid achieve nothing and forgo even that which sustains us through the worst of times: hope.

An American is anyone who understands that, to secure the good life, he needs to use his mind and wits to meet life’s challenges. How would Grandpop secure the money necessary for his first trip to America? Where would he find a job and a place to stay? You don’t need college to know that you have to use your brain, not just your brawn, to make your way in America.

This spirit is alive in immigrants today. We see those from India running small motels coast-to-coast. Others are professionals—doctors, dentists, computer technicians. Still others are entrepreneurs. Most speak English. We see Koreans starting by running small markets, with entire families helping to work their way into the middle class. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, even as the smoke was still rising from burnt stores, the Korean business community nationwide was pooling resources to lend to their brothers and sisters for rebuilding. And, of course, we see Latinos performing in many familiar jobs with dignity and energy as they strive to achieve the American Dream.

Those concerned about the negative effects of immigrants on American culture should recognize that immigrants still represent the moral strength of America. Yet many Americans do not. While they are rightly proud of our immigrant past, they argue that the situation today is different. They especially are concerned that too many Latin American immigrants refuse to learn or speak English and to integrate into American society. They see some as politically radical, wanting, for example, for Mexico to take back the American Southwest and California.


Critics of immigration cite other differences with the immigrants of decades past. In choosing to become Americans, earlier immigrants, principally from Europe, essentially cut themselves off from their old countries. Travel back and forth was very expensive and time-consuming. For all practical purposes, those who came to America knew they were making it their new home, with little chance of seeing their country of origin again. Even communication was difficult. Letters could take months to travel back and forth between countries.

Immigrants did tend to congregate in their own communities—little Italys; Chinatowns; Polish, Irish, and Jewish quarters. They often continued to speak their native languages, especially in the home. But children of immigrants quickly learned English, and were encouraged to do so—and within a generation they were integrated into American society.

Today, however, a number of factors present obstacles to the cultural integration of immigrants. With mass communications through phone, the Internet, and satellite TV, immigrants can remain immersed in the culture of their native country. Travel is inexpensive enough that a trip back home is no longer unaffordable. Government, of course, actively discourages assimilation: bilingual education removes the incentive to learn English, while the welfare state erodes the virtues of individual responsibility.

Furthermore, American political and cultural elites have foisted an anti-freedom philosophy on many immigrants. In the name of “multiculturalism,” these elites want immigrants to continue to identify themselves—first, foremost, and self-consciously—as members of the accidental group of their birth—as Mexicans, or Guatemalans, or whatever—rather than as members of the group of their choice: as Americans.

This profoundly anti-individualist doctrine pervades the controversy surrounding immigration. Immigrants should not be proud of being Latino, Italian, Irish, Indian, or any other ethnic group or nationality. Certainly, they might retain a love for their native foods, languages, festivals, and cultural traditions. But primarily, immigrants to America should be proud of what they make of themselves as individuals. The promotion of group identity flies in the face of the principles that motivate most immigrants, most Americans, and in fact everything America stands for. Being “an American” means being an individual.

Ultimately, then, the immigration issue pits those who promote collectivist group identity and paternalist policies against those who favor individualism and personal responsibility. Fundamentally, the battle is philosophical and moral.  


Untangling the current immigration mess will be difficult, but the moral principles illuminated above can guide our path. The best that can be hoped for is some sort of equitable solution. It won’t be perfect; with the mess that the government has made, no perfect solution is possible.

The immigration problem clearly exposes the injustice and impracticality of the welfare state.

To begin with, tighter border security and easier access to the United States should go hand-in-hand. Immigrants are morally right to seek opportunities in the United States. When they come here to work, they create wealth, and their spirit of enterprise reinforces the best aspects of American culture. But the unrestricted illegal flow creates a plethora of problems, not the least of which is a general undermining of the rule of law. President Bush’s proposal attempts to deal with both issues. While the details could be better and certainly will be subject to the political process, the direction of this dual approach is morally correct.

Next, Americans should not be too obsessed with the buzzword “amnesty.” Yes, illegal immigrants broke the law by coming here. But merely entering the country without the proper papers does not initiate force against anyone and does not limit the liberties of Americans citizens. These immigrants have done nothing immoral, and Americans who see them as villains for wanting to better their own lives through their own efforts should aim their moral outrage at themselves— for harboring such an un-American sentiment.

The problems created by the welfare state are the most intractable. While governments would have greater opportunities to tax legal immigrants, those same legal immigrants might take even more welfare benefits. That, of course, is the ugly nature of the immoral welfare state system.

But a way out of this dilemma may be found in a proposal from Edward Crane, president of the Cato Institute. He suggests that we allow anyone to come to the United States and stay here, if he agrees not to accept any welfare benefits or other handouts from governments. Crane believes there would be a lot of takers, and I think he’s probably right. Such a suggestion would no doubt bring cries of protest from paternalists and self-styled egalitarians who would think it unfair that immigrants would not receive the same “entitlements” as others. But the true injustice is that money is being forcibly taken from taxpayers and redistributed in the first place, whether to immigrants or others. That is money to which no one is entitled except those who earned it.

Crane’s suggestion offers a workable way to deal with both the immigration and the welfare state problem: re-establish the principle of justice in both areas.

Some Senate plans would have illegal immigrants pay penalties as part of a process toward legalization and possible citizenship. However, many immigrants would find it very difficult to pay such penalties. One Senate plan also would grant illegal immigrants Social Security. Of course, those who’ve earned money “off the books” did not pay into the account.

Instead, why not allow immigrants to forfeit money they’ve paid into Social Security up to a certain dollar amount? As the price for remaining in the country and as a step to citizenship, they would be permanently excluded from the Social Security system, as well as from Medicare and other federal welfare programs. But these immigrants also would be allowed to place in private retirement accounts—such as 401k plans or IRAs—the money that they would otherwise pay into Social Security. These accounts would be their private property, which the government could not touch. They similarly would be exempt from Medicare and other specific taxes, while being encouraged to set up Health Savings Accounts. Perhaps they also could be given a special, lower federal tax rate, in exchange for being excluded from federal benefits.

Such proposals would have another vital benefit: they would strengthen the morality of independence and personal responsibility that is at the foundation of a free society. If they were enacted, in the future it might be immigrants who would complain about native-born Americans clinging to a culture of dependence! In fact, immigrants could well become the true, spiritual Americans.


America is unique because the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that followed it created a political regime for individuals who wished to be united with their countrymen—but not essentially by a common language, ethnic background, or other accident of birth. Rather, Americans are united by their love of liberty: their insistence on their own individual liberty and their respect for the freedom of others. It is those principles that have attracted millions to our shores, drawing them to pass beneath Lady Liberty’s lamp and through America’s golden door to new lives and new opportunities for self-realization.

As the public and policymakers wrestle with the current immigration challenges, let them remember these principles and the individualist nature of America—if they truly want this nation to remain a land of opportunity, with liberty and justice for all.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former Director of Advocacy and Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society, is now President of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at

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