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Two clashing views of immigration

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The Great Wall of China was built, expanded, and improved from the seventh century B.C. to the Ming Dynasty in our Middle Ages. It was built to keep unwelcome people out. These same tribes, halted by the Great Wall, later turned west to enter into the remains of the Roman Empire. Rome built Hadrian’s Wall in England, but it did not have a wall on its vast eastern frontiers. It did have armies. These so-called barbarians settled in what we now know as Western Europe. They joined the armies and fashioned their own states.

The Maginot and Siegfried Lines (Walls) were built in the 1930’s by the French and the Germans to keep each other out. All walled cities, including the Vatican, had a similar purpose. Walled enclosures became less useful once men invented explosives to blow them up and airplanes to fly over them. Today, instead of building walls, the Chinese have installed surveillance devices that can identify almost anyone, anywhere, at any time. Such devices are found almost everywhere.

{mosads}We are now building walls again. It need not be a bad idea. Thus far, no one has proposed building a wall on our northern frontier, but it may come to that judging from the radical direction of Canadian politics. Mexico does not build a wall on is southern frontier. It seems almost anyone can pass through its land provided that he does not stay in Mexico. In the meantime, a young socialist wins a Democratic Party primary. She, and others, wants to abolish the ICE agency in charge of upholding the immigration laws.


Reflecting on what are called immigrants, we encounter some curious anomalies. Why, after all, would anyone want to leave the place in which he lives to go someplace else? If he leaves, to where does he go? Can he go wherever he wants? The places to which people do not want to go have no immigration problems. Some structures, like the old Berlin Wall, were built to prevent people from leaving, not to prevent people from entering.

The United States, as we know it, is largely a nation of immigrants escaping from various turmoils in Europe or Asia. This massive emigration was made possible once the ocean was no longer a major barrier. The airplane can put anyone down anywhere. People can still climb over walls, go around or under them.  

Aristotle noticed that regime changes are often caused by disproportionate changes in the make-up of a citizen population. Thus, if many children are born to one segment of a relatively static society, change will take place. If many young men and women leave a city, the place will change. If numbers people from outside the boundaries of a city settle within it, the regime will change, especially if they do not assimilate. The Chinese have recently built many huge mega-cities to bring its population into the modern era. Japan, like Switzerland, does not allow much immigration, even with a relatively aging population. It does not want to become something else. They see it as a good to remain what they are.

Throughout the western world, including the United States, we see a decline in the birth rate to well below replacement levels. Many argue that not a few smaller countries, and some not so small like Italy, Germany, and England, will effectively disappear as we know them when their local population is replaced by children raised with radically different cultural values.

Much of the turmoil about immigration arises from theoretical presuppositions. What might be called the “left-universalist” view is based on the premise that the nation state is no longer the necessary and basic unit of political organization. This view maintains that rich states did not become rich because they learned how not to be poor; they became rich because they exploited the rest of the world. Today, only one globe exists. Everyone is a citizen of it whether he likes it or not.

Thus, everyone has a right to travel, work, or live wherever he wants. Everyone should have mostly the same income and amenities. It is a social injustice if someone does not. No passports or boundaries are needed. It is the responsibility of world government to carry out and enforce these goals. Modern technology has made many jobs obsolete. No necessary connection exists between work and income. Non-workers are entitled to the same benefits as the workers. Free education and health care should be available to all. Thus, any barriers to immigration are seen as a violation of international citizenship.

The opposite, realist view is that such a world organization would soon be a tyranny from which no escape was possible. No place could be found to immigrate to as every place would be mostly the same. The fact is that people are rich or poor, free or not-free, because of the ideas that govern their souls and their polity. Not all states are alike. The so-called “failed” states never seemed to grasp why they were poor or in chaos. Often they thought that it was someone else’s fault. They were being treated unjustly. The proof was that others had what appeared to them as a better life.  

States that have learned how not to be poor, how to be free, must protect themselves not just for their own good but also for the good of places that have not or will not learn the essential lessons. If everyone suddenly descends on one fortunate country, it soon ceases to be itself. It can no longer do the things that made it free and prosperous. It can no longer be an example to others. This remaining itself is the real issue behind all the immigration controversy. Does any nation have an obligation to remain what it is? Or must it become like everyone else?

In principle, those who immigrate abandon the place that they should themselves reform and not escape. The world is not helped if successful countries cease to be themselves.

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.  

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