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How porous should our borders be?

By Steve Farrell
web posted October 27, 2003

You and I are "melting pot" people; citizens, that is, of that country set apart by Heaven to receive those in search of the good life from every nation, kindred, tongue and people.

As such, we, of all people, ought to recognize the value of a liberal immigration policy. President Thomas Jefferson, a descendent of immigrants, presiding over a nation of immigrants, thought so.

In his first annual message, dated, December 8, 1801, he asked of those who thought to impose an extremely arduous course to citizenship for the immigrant (a 14 years residency requirement), a few probing questions:

"Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The constitution, indeed, has wisely provided that, for admission to certain offices of important trust, a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to every one manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us?" (1)

The advocates of today's liberal immigration policies, or of far more radical proposals for open borders, might feel inclined to thus quote Jefferson, and feel justified.

Yet they had better do so with caution. President Jefferson also suggested that America balance her open arm policy "with restrictions, perhaps, to guard against the fraudulent usurpation of our flag; an abuse which brings so much embarrassment and loss on the genuine citizen, and so much danger to the nation of being involved in war".

"[N]o endeavor", he said, "should be spared to detect and suppress" this sort of immigrant. (2)

So much for blind liberality. Not every immigrant is a friend of America. Jefferson was no fool. He had other concerns too.

In his "Notes on Virginia," Jefferson reflects, "It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent."

"Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet from such we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants."

He warns, nearly prophetically "They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass." (3)

There is theory; and then there is reality. Jefferson was schooled in both. He knew that to every liberal law there were some reasonable limits.

We need artisans, he admitted, but not enemies. We want true freedom seekers to come, but without "extraordinary encouragements." (4)

What would Thomas Jefferson, therefore, think of an immigration policy today, that with flashing lights invites the non-working masses of the world come, from countries that hate us, to a feast of "free" food, "free" health care, "free" education, "free" social security benefits, and free and instant voter registration cards?

It is hard to see Jefferson calling it anything but extraordinarily unwise, and extraordinarily revolutionary. Jefferson would have proposed something better;—a policy liberal in its extension of the blessings of liberty to those who desired it, and conservative in its economic and political common sense.

Pundit Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College, and the author of the inspirational novel, "Dark Rose." Get your copy now.


1. Bergh, Albert Ellery, Editor. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3, p. 338.
2. Ibid., pgs. 338-339.
3. Bergh, Volume 2, p. 120.
4. Ibid., p. 121.

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