Immigrants Remain a Driving Force of U.S. Power

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The first two people from the U.S. to settle in California were sailors who arrived in 1816. One was a white man named Thomas Doak, the other a black man known only as Bob. Initially arrested for smuggling near Santa Barbara along with their ship’s captain, the men decided to stay and were rechristened Felipe Santiago and Juan Cristobal, respectively. “They took out Spanish citizenship and married California women, living out their days as prosperous householders,” Kevin Starr wrote in his classic history, “Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915.”

The society they entered was, to quote Starr again, “one without schools, without manufactures, without defenses, administered by a quasi-feudal mission system and inhabited by a population that barely exceeded 1,500.” When Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821, it also was left with no colonial overlord, and only the weakest of supervision from Mexico City.

By then a few more folks from the east side of the continent had showed up, and their numbers kept growing. First came the representatives of Yankee trading firms, then Appalachian trappers and then, starting in 1841, immigrant families looking to homestead. By April 1846, the U.S. counsel in California was remarking that “a person traveling from San Diego to San Francisco or Bodega can stop at a foreigner’s farm almost every few hours, and travel without any knowledge of the Spanish language.” A month later, the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico. By July, California was a U.S. territory. In 1850, it became the 31st state.

One could craft an argument from this that immigrants weaken a nation: By letting in people from the U.S., the Spanish Californians lost control of their society and eventually their territory. Then again, there weren’t nearly enough Spanish Californians to secure such a giant territory in the first place, especially not against a neighbor bursting with newcomers. It was in part its dearth of immigrants relative to the U.S. that left Mexico so weak it lost half its territory in the Mexican-American War. In 1800, the area that became Mexico probably had slightly more people than the U.S. By the 1840s, the U.S. population was likely twice Mexico’s. By 1920, it was six times larger. (After a long baby boom in Mexico in the second half of the 20th century,  the ratio is now about 2.7 to 1.)

Immigration-fueled population disparities seem to have played a similar role a few years later in deciding the Civil War. In the first U.S. Census, in 1790, Virginia had 72 percent more people (slaves included) than the next most populous state, Pennsylvania. North Carolina was No. 3. By 1860, Virginia was in fourth place behind New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois, and what were soon to become the Confederate states accounted for less than one-third of the U.S. population and less than 20 percent of the free population. About 2 percent of free Virginians were foreign-born; 26 percent of New Yorkers were.

This is useful background, I think, in understanding why the architects of the 14th Amendment wanted to ensure automatic citizenship for the U.S.-born children of foreigners. The amendment was written mainly to guarantee rights to freed slaves and their descendants, and two of its principal drafters and proponents, Senators Lyman Trumbull of Illinois and Jacob Howard of Michigan, said a few things during Senate debates in 1866 that have been taken out of context by a handful of scholars and polemicists to claim that the 14th Amendment guarantee of citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” was never meant to encompass the children of citizens or subjects of foreign nations.

If you read the rest of the debate, which is all available online from the Library of Congress, it quickly becomes clear that this claim has no merit. I’ve pointed this out before, but a few passages seem especially relevant here. On Jan. 30, 1866, for example, Senator Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania asked Trumbull whether his Civil Rights Bill, the precursor to the 14th Amendment, “will not have the effect of naturalizing the children of Chinese and Gypsies born in this country?” Trumbull’s response: “Undoubtedly.”

Cowan then expressed concern that this would allow China to “throw a population upon California and the mining districts of that country that would overwhelm our race and wrest from them the dominion of that country.” Trumbull said that under existing U.S. law, “the children who are born here of parents who have not been naturalized are citizens,” adding that “I am afraid we have got very few citizens in some of the counties of good old Pennsylvania if the children born of German parents are not citizens.”

“The children of German parents are citizens,” Cowan agreed, “but Germans are not Chinese; Germans are not Australians, nor Hottentots, nor anything of the kind.” Trumbull: “The law makes no such distinction; and the child of an Asiatic is just as much a citizen as the child of a European.”

On May 30 of that same year, during debate on the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause, Cowan went at it again. What if California’s lawmakers decided to restrict immigration? Would the amendment force the state to grant citizenship to the children of foreigners it did not want? He then went on at cantankerous length about the Gypsies (members of the ethnic group now known as Romani) who “wander in gangs in my State” and “infest society.”

California’s John Conness (all of the senators cited here were Republicans, as was more than three-quarters of the Senate that term) replied that California lawmakers had tried repeatedly to restrict and penalize immigration from China, and that these efforts had so far been turned back by the state Supreme Court as unconstitutional. (“A very just and constitutional decision, undoubtedly,” chimed in Howard.) Conness, himself an immigrant from Ireland, then took the debate in a telling direction:

I had never heard myself of the invasion of Pennsylvania by Gypsies. I do not know, and I do not know that the honorable Senator can tell us, how many Gypsies the census shows to be within the State of Pennsylvania. The only invasion of Pennsylvania within my recollection was an invasion very much worse and more disastrous to the State ... than that of Gypsies. It was an invasion of rebels, which this amendment, if I understand it aright, is intended to guard against and to prevent the recurrence of.

Conness, Howard and Trumbull easily won this argument in 1866, with the Senate approving the text of the 14th Amendment 33-11 and the House 120-32, and again in 1868 with its ratification by three-quarters of the states. The political moment did not last long, it must be said. In the 1870s, more and more Northern intellectuals and politicians began turning against civil rights for Southern blacks and embracing immigration views similar to Cowan’s. Starting with the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from entering the country, Congress began putting those views into law, and it wasn’t until 1965 that they were fully removed. But while birthright citizenship endured a couple of close calls in the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1870s and 1880s, it survived.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, though, created a new twist. While it greatly expanded immigration from Asia, it also set quotas for the first time for Mexicans and other Latin Americans, who had previously been allowed to cross the border into the U.S. whenever there was work (and occasionally sent back en masse when there wasn’t). Before long, thanks in part to the baby boom mentioned above, there were far more Mexicans wanting to enter the U.S. than the new immigration law allowed, marking the beginning of illegal immigration as a mass phenomenon. The modern critique of birthright citizenship (it didn’t start with Donald Trump!) has been mainly that it creates perverse incentives by encouraging people to enter the country illegally to secure U.S. citizenship for their kids. There’s surely something to that — although with unauthorized immigration down sharply over the past decade thanks to tougher enforcement, the U.S. housing bust (which sharply cut employment in construction, where many Mexican immigrants work) and changing demographics south of the border, it doesn’t seem to represent a national emergency of a scale that would justify throwing out not only the 14th Amendment but also the common-law tradition that preceded it.

Those changing demographics south of the border — and north of it, and everywhere else — are worth thinking about. Births in the U.S. have fallen below the replacement rate needed to keep the population from shrinking in the absence of immigration, and they’re not much higher in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. Fertility is even lower in most of Europe and in East Asia, and falling fast elsewhere in Asia. It hasn’t fallen nearly as far in sub-Saharan Africa, but as Lyman Stone of the Institute for Family Studies argued last week (making this, I’m pretty sure, the first two-Lyman column of my career), there’s no good reason to think it won’t. In other words, there’s a fair chance that within a few decades, flat to shrinking populations will have become the global norm, and the ability to attract people and talent an even more crucial source of economic and political advantage than it has been in the past.

As the opening story in this column indicates, it is possible for immigrants to overwhelm a society and utterly change its character. Not experiencing wave after wave after wave of immigration like the U.S. did enabled Mexico to retain major elements of its pre-Spanish culture in a way that we really haven’t north of the border (even as it helped ensure that the border was drawn a lot farther to the south than Mexico preferred). U.S. culture is almost entirely an immigrant culture — the continuing stream of newcomers is part of what defines us. As a percentage of population, that stream is currently low both by historical standards and compared with other wealthy nations. The foreign-born share of the population is near an all-time high because the native-born population has been growing so slowly, but I’m not sure if that’s an argument for less immigration or more. In any case, current immigrants are by all indications continuing to strengthen the U.S. Which isn’t exactly news, but it seems like it’s worth pointing out from time to time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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