Summary Thoughts on Immigration Policy

By John H. Tanton, M.D.
Volume 30, Number 1 (Fall 2019)
Issue theme: "John Tanton: His Life and Legacy (1934-2019)"

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, I, “Economy,” 1854

Thoreau nicely illustrates for me the virtue of working on population—and hence immigration—topics as an approach to the many human problems affected by population growth and distribution. It is striking at the causes rather than hacking at the effects.

I. The Three Fundamental Questions

After twenty-plus years of studying and working on the immigration question, I believe that virtually all of its points can be boiled down to three fundamental questions, provided one is not a border anarchist, that is, one who feels that the U.S. agencies now combined as the Bureau of Customs and Border Protaction, plus the Drug Enforcement Administration should be disbanded, and that people and goods should be able to move across national boundaries without any regulations. When pressed, very few people hold this position.

The three fundamental questions are:

1. How many people shall we admit each year?

2. Who gets the visas, out of the huge pool who
would like to receive them? What should the criteria
be for choosing?

3. How are the rules going to be enforced?

If one wishes to debate immigration policy, answers to these three questions should be attempted, complete with a rationale for positions taken on each of them.

II. The Three Stages of the Debate

When Roger Conner and I started the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), we theorized that there would be three stages to the debate on immigration policy:

1. The Statue of Liberty phase.

Here, whenever the immigration topic comes up, recitation of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet is considered a sufficient answer.

2. The Caveat phase.

In this stage, thoughtful people begin to see some problems, but feel they need to excuse their interest by interjecting such phrases as, “I’m not a racist or xenophobic, but….” They would then state the particular problem. This seems to be the stage we are currently in.

3. Open Discussion.

In this mature stage of the immigration debate, people will be able to discuss the issue as a legitimate public policy, without first excusing themselves.

III. Three Ways to Control Illegal Immigration

1. Measures within the U.S.

This involves apprehending people once they have entered illegally, or overstayed legal visas, and removing them from the country. There are many difficulties with this approach, including those of civil liberty. However, some of this work is required if we are not going to have a situation where illegal entrants are “home free” once they are inside the U.S.

2. Measures at the borders, ports, and embassies.

A much better approach is to prevent illegal entry in the first place. This is basically a police function and may have some public relations problems. It does avoid the civil liberty questions involved with apprehending persons already in the country.

3. Solving the problem in the country of origin.

This is everyone’s favorite approach. If the push pressures for immigration are the high rates of pop-ulation growth, the dire economic straits, and political unrest in the countries of origin, solving these problems would take off the push pressure. The difficulty is that we have been trying to do this for decades now, with mixed success, at best.

In the end, it will probably take a combination of efforts in all three areas to bring the situation under control.

IV. Our Goals

1. End illegal immigration.

If people are going to come to the U.S., they should come openly and above board, and enjoy all the rights and protections of the rest of us.

2. Reevaluate legal immigration.

From time to time, see if legal immigration is supportive of other national goals, such as population stabilization, housing, education, and employment, especially for our most vulnerable workers.

V. Five Related Areas

Often separated in public policy discussions, and kept separate by the organizations working on them, the following five areas are intimately related:

1. Population policy, both at home and abroad.

2. Immigration policy.

3. Language/assimilation/national unity policy. This is the question of cultural cohesion in a polity.

4. The proper balance of rights and responsibilities among citizens

Our journal, The Social Contract, tries, as a matter of editorial policy, to highlight the connections between these areas, and encourages readers to think of them as a whole.

5. Economic policy. How will these other issues impact our economy? And how might economic policies impact them? ■

(October 22, 1991)

About the author

John Tanton, who passed away on July 16, 2019, was the founding editor and publisher of The Social Contract