America's Immigration "Problem"
Immigration has traditionally aroused strong passions in the United States. Although Americans like to profess pride in their history as "a nation of immigrants," each group of arrivals, once established, has fought to keep newcomers out. Over the past two centuries, each new wave of immigrants has encountered strenuous opposition from earlier arrivals, who have insisted that the country was already filled to capacity. (The single exception to this was the South's eagerness to import ever more slaves.) Similar efforts to shut out newcomers persist today. But those who would close the door to immigration are mistaken on two counts: not only do they underestimate the country's capacity to absorb more people, but they also fail to appreciate the political and economic forces that give rise to immigration in the first place.
U.S. policymakers and the public alike believe the causes of immigration are self-evident: people who migrate to the United States are driven to do so by poverty, economic stagnation, and overpopulation in their home countries. Since immigration is thought to result from unfavorable socioeconomic conditions in other countries, it is assumed to be unrelated to U.S. economic needs or broader international economic conditions. In this context, the decision on whether to take in immigrants comes to be seen primarily as a humanitarian matter; we admit immigrants by choice and out of generosity, not because we have any economic motive or political responsibility to do so. An effective immigration policy, by this reasoning, is one that selectively admits immigrants for such purposes as family reunification and refugee resettlement, while perhaps seeking to deter migration by promoting direct foreign investment, foreign aid, and democracy in the migrant-sending countries.
Although there are nuances of position, liberals and conservatives alike accept the prevailing wisdom on the causes of immigration and the best ways to regulate it. The only disagreement, in fact, is over how strictly we should limit immigration. Conservatives generally maintain that if immigration is not severely restricted, we will soon be overrun by impoverished masses from the Third World, although the demand for cheap agricultural labor at times tempers this position. Liberals tend to be more charitable, arguing that the United States, as the richest country in the world, can afford to be generous in offering a haven to the poor and oppressed. Advocates of a less restrictive policy also note the positive effects