It is July 10, 1858, a Saturday evening, and Lincoln is speaking in Chicago. The night before his opponent in their race for the U.S. Senate, Stephen Douglas, had referred to him graciously in his big speech, and invited him to take a good seat. Lincoln seized the opportunity and invited Douglas’s audience to hear him the next night.
And so here he was, speaking, as usual, text and subtext, on slavery. But near the end, he turned to who populates America. Half or more of his audience, he suggested, could trace their personal ancestry back to the founding generation, “those iron men” who were “our fathers and grandfathers.” Remembering their creation of the United States, thinking of “how it was done and who did it,” has civic benefits. It leaves Americans feeling “more attached to one another, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.”
What of those who could not trace their bloodlines back to the Revolution? The immigrants of Europe are “not descendents at all,” Lincoln said, and “cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us.”
“But” he then said.
“But when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ “ And that “moral sentiment” connects groups and generations and tells America’s immigrants “that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration. And so they are.”
“And so they are.” With those four words he told the anti-immigrant Know Nothings that new Americans have an equal place. He was saying: Take That, haters of the Catholic Church, spoofers of foreign ways, nonsympathizers with the beset, bedraggled and be-brogued.
* * *
I love those words by Lincoln, and believe them. But it continues to amaze that 148 years after he said them, who populates America is still a matter of urgent argument.
Much of course has changed. Immigration in Lincoln’s day was open and legal. Now it is open in effect because overwhelmingly illegal in practice. If you want to come across the border, you can, essentially, come. You make the decision about what is best for you; America does not make the decision as to what is best for it. Both Congress and the White House, our official deciders, will likely do in the next session what they did in the last: spend a lot of time trying to confuse people into thinking they’re closing the borders without actually closing them. There will be talk again of fences, partial fences, fencelike entities and virtual fences. While they dither and mislead, towns and cities will continue to attempt to make their own immigration policy.
You know the facts. Immigrants are here in huge numbers, unlawfully, in the age of terror. They swell the cost of local life—emergency rooms, schools—which has an impact on local taxes. There are towns and cities that feel, and are, overwhelmed. And no one will help them.
The essential reason, I think, is that America’s elites don’t want America’s borders closed. Businesses want low-wage workers; intellectuals are wed to global visions of cross-border prosperity; politicians want Hispanic loyalty and the Hispanic vote. It’s not convenient for any of them to close the borders. If Americans on the ground are enduring difficulties over this, it’s . . . too bad. This is further eroding America’s already eroding faith in its institutions.
I think there are two unremarked elements of the debate that are now contributing to the government’s inability or refusal to come up with a solution.
The problem is not partisanship. It is not polarization, not really. Sentiments on this of all issues in the nation of immigrants are and would be complicated, nuanced. The problem is doctrinaire-ness. Even as both parties have become less philosophical, less tied to their animating philosophies, they have become more doctrinaire. The people who should be solving the immigration problem are holding fiercely to abstractions—to big-think economic theory, to emanations of penumbras in the law—instead of facing a crucial, concrete and immediate challenge.
The second element is definitiveness. Our political figures say they have to concentrate on an overall, long-term, comprehensive answer to the immigration problem. So they huff and puff about the long-term implications of this move or that, and in the end they do nothing.
They are like people in a burning house who sit around discussing the long-term efficacy of various kinds of water hoses while the house burns down around them.
* * *
More and more our leaders forget the common sense of grandma. In most everyone’s family there was a grandma who used to sit quietly in the corner and say nothing. Then someone would ask her opinion just to be polite, and she’d say something so wise, so commonsensical, it stopped everyone in their tracks. And you realized that she was smart, that she’d lived a life and seen things.
In the case of illegal immigration in America I think grandma would say, “Stop it. Build a wall. But put doors in the wall so when the problem is over, you can open the doors.”
America has, since 1980, experienced the biggest wave of immigrants since the great wave of 1880-1920. And we have never stopped to absorb it. We have never stopped to digest what we’ve eaten. Is it any wonder we have indigestion?
We don’t really have to solve the problem forever. We just have to solve it now. One wonders why we don’t stop illegal immigration, now. Absorb, settle down, ease pressures—for now. Why not be empirical, and find out what’s true? Some say stopping illegal immigration will lead to an increase in wages for low-income workers. This is to be desired. Let’s find out if it happens.
And why not give the latest waves of immigrants time to become Americans? Time to absorb our meaning and history and traditions. Isn’t that the way to help them feel “more attached” and “more firmly bound to the country we inhabit”?
I’m not sure we need more globalism, but I feel certain we need more grandmaism. A happy Thanksgiving to all, old and new.