As Americans, we often call ourselves “the great melting pot of nations” or “the American experiment” or “the last best hope of earth” and are justly proud of the democratic republic which has stood the test of time since the ratification of its Constitution in 1791. However, we are also a curiously conflicted people who have struggled with our diversity. On the one hand, we celebrate the multitude of immigrants who built this land and who brought with them stunning cultural riches. On the other hand, we have tolerated indentured servitude, the enslavement of an entire race simply distinguished by the color of its skin, and the internment of American citizens. We have arbitrarily limited our welcome to selected members of the human family, and we continue to treat native Americans with unconscionable disrespect. Ironically, “the mighty woman with a torch” proclaims: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The immigration policy of this country has slowly changed over the years. The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed “any free white person of 'good character,' who has been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship” while the Steerage Act of 1819 required improved conditions on sailing ships to guarantee that immigrants did not arrive in America sick and dying.
Between 1820 and 1860, millions of German and Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, with an additional 20 million immigrants arriving between 1880 and 1920 from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe.
The first anti-immigrant political party, the Know-Nothing Party, was organized in 1849, and the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by Congress in 1882. The 1891 Immigration Act further restricted immigration by excluding polygamists, people convicted of certain crimes, and those with sickness or disease. Throughout the 20th century, the United States would struggle with its immigration policy, imposing additional restrictions at the beginning of World War I and in the years following the Great War, yet granting amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants living illegally in the United States when Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act in 1986.
In 1889, a young German, Karl Steinmetz, experienced the changing winds of immigration policy. After fleeing political persecution in his native Germany and spending a short time in Switzerland, he chose to emigrate to the United States.
Virtually penniless and knowing almost no English, Steinmetz appeared at Ellis Island, identifying his profession as “theoretical physicist.” There, a bewildered immigration officer considered Steinmetz medically unfit because he was hunchbacked and afflicted with dwarfism. On the verge of being rejected, Steinmetz displayed some of his drawings and changed his profession to “draftsman,” thereby satisfying the official and saving his admittance to the United States. No one asked Steinmetz about his nearly completed doctorate from the University of Wroclaw.
He worked at General Electric for 30 years and was chair of the electrical engineering department of Union College from 1902-13 (the college awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1903). He counted among his friends Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. His solution of a key electrical engineering puzzle (which had eluded Edison, Tesla, George Westinghouse and other electrical greats of the era), along with his subsequent elucidation of the fundamental mathematics of AC power, led to the modern electrical grid.
Our world would be impossible without electricity; without Steinmetz there would be no modern electrical grid. His work transformed the nascent electrical industry in the United States.
A tale of assimilation
On a more personal note, my father came to the United States as a 16-year-old high school student from Czechoslovakia, knowing no English, without training in a trade and without an academic credential. He was sent to a second-grade classroom to learn English while taking high school classes; within three years he had won a college scholarship. Sadly, the disruptions of the Great Depression and World War II prevented my father from completing college.
While my grandfather learned English because his job on an automobile assembly line required it, my mother's mother never learned English; my mother spoke only Polish until she began elementary school and was taught English. She completed her education after high school at night school, becoming a bookkeeper.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, my four siblings and I, along with our three spouses, have earned 17 undergraduate and graduate degrees awarded by highly respected academic institutions, including Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame, Wayne State University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan.
To honor our father who came to this country 88 years ago, a memorial brick was added to the Ellis Island American Immigrant Wall of Honor during the renovation of the historic immigration processing center in New York Harbor.
The amazing thing about the United States of America is that these stories are not the exception; they represent the path trod by millions of residents of this country. Look at yourself in the mirror; we immigrants and the descendants of immigrants are the United States. It is we, the people, not a geographic region demarcated by oceans, rivers and lakes, fences or walls, who define the United States.
We should draw inspiration from the preamble to our Constitution: “We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...” The preamble set this people on a dynamic and active path to achieve a society possessing qualities never before seen on the world's stage.
Notice that all the verbs – “form,” “establish,” “insure,” “provide for,” “promote” and “secure” – imply a dynamic process. George Will, in defining American conservatism, understood this dynamism: “It [American conservatism] is to preserve a society open to perpetual dynamic change. To do that, you have to go back to the past. You have to conserve the founders' vision...”
Over nearly 300 years, the American experiment has been an active and developing process in which we have come to affirm that the phrase “all men” applies not just to the landed male gentry, but to women, to native Americans, to people of all colors, religions and ethnicity, and to the poorest among us. To all these fellow inhabitants of the United States, the founders' vision encompassed the possession of “... unalienable rights ...life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Consequently, our immigration laws and policies should not focus on walls and fences and lines, and on determining who is first or who is last; immigration is not about gatekeeping. Immigrants are not and should not be defined in terms of a single decision made at a single moment in time at an entry point that demarcates “inside” from “outside.”
These narrow categories produced a broken immigration system which has wrestled with conflicting viewpoints over some 400 years. Rather, cognizant of the historical dynamism that characterizes the American experiment, immigration law and immigration policy ought to be construed as a process that begins with the first step at the gateway but then continues through the integration of a person into a society, the shouldering of the great responsibility as a member of that society, and participation in the great opportunities offered by that society.
But what is the burden imposed on a society by engaging in such a process view of immigration? Clearly, the engagement required demands substantial effort; the delegation and mandating of responsibilities to the states would avoid a bureaucracy, encourage creative local solutions (teaching, learning, apprenticeships and employment), and emphasize that responsibilities and opportunities are, most powerfully, local.
Most significantly, this process view of immigration would make operative in a society one of the key insights made by Adam Smith in “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” Unlike every other economic system, Smith (often called the father of capitalism) noted that capitalism has the potential to increase the degree of economic well-being; making greater wealth available to more individuals. (This is not automatic. Our antitrust laws and the recent major economic collapse stand as testament to this.)
We immigrants and descendants of immigrants, as laborers, or artists, or tradespeople, or inventors, or entrepreneurs, or teachers, or physicians, or any of the myriad occupations in our society, all add wealth to society. From the engagement of an entire population will come the insights, the inventions, the great literature, and the beautiful art and music that are the hallmark of a vibrant and living culture.
Notice that the great lady of the harbor proclaims: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
It is a door through which we invite participation in a culture offering great opportunity and requiring great responsibility; it is not a gate or a fence.
Ronald J. Duchovic is professor emeritus of chemistry at Purdue University Fort Wayne.