Column: When immigrants are demonized, the U.S. betrays its ideals — and economic reality

A long line of migrants stetching into the distance
Migrants walk along a highway in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico on Monday, during their journey north toward the U.S. border.
(Edgar H. Clemente / Associated Press)

We might as well just take down the Statue of Liberty. Retire the “Mother of Exiles,” in Emma Lazarus’ 140-year-old words. Extinguish her torch welcoming from other nations “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

And forget the rhapsodizing we’ve long heard, from social-studies teachers and presidents including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, about the United States being “a land of immigrants,” the “shining city upon a hill,” the “promised land” to millions of migrants for all of its history.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Granted, America has never fully lived up to its self-professed ideal as a beacon to the world; the nation has always had a troubled relationship with the waves of wannabe Americans. I learned as a schoolgirl of Irish and German descent about the “No Irish Need Apply” signs in the United States around the time my 19th century ancestors arrived, and about the early 20th century law in my native Ohio against speaking German, the language of my grandmother and great-grandparents.


But today’s open xenophobia is among the worst instances in our history, and a defining attribute of one of our two major political parties, the Republicans. At their presidential primary debate Wednesday night, Republican candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley fought hard to out anti-immigrant each other. For months, House Republicans have opposed further aid to Ukraine and Israel — and now they might block government funding, too — unless President Biden and Democrats agree to an immigration crackdown.

And yet, economically and demographically, amid baby boomers’ retiring and a persistently low birthrate, the nation has rarely if ever needed immigrants more. We need them to work, including in jobs most Americans won’t take; to pay taxes, including the payroll levies that buttress our strapped Social Security and Medicare programs, and to replenish America’s entrepreneurial spirit with the risk-taking bent that migrants show by leaving their homes to come here.

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It’s a testament to the opportunities the U.S. still promises that foreigners keep coming despite the way they are demonized in our domestic debates. Lady Liberty’s “lamp beside the golden door” at New York harbor is giving way to layer upon layer of razor wire along Texas’ border with Mexico.

Yes, the influx at the southern border is as severe and uncontrolled as ever before. Those who come seeking a better life from Mexico and Central and South America are joined at the Rio Grande and other entry points by migrants from Africa, China, Ukraine and the countries where America was recently at war, Iraq and Afghanistan, all seeking asylum or trying to cross illegally. At the same time, the United States must guard against terrorists and drug traffickers who also want in.

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Bold action is essential. But it should not be merely restrictive and punitive; it must balance the imperative of border control with America’s ideals and, less abstractly, its needs. Restrictions must be combined with incentives for workers, skilled and unskilled, that U.S. employers tell Congress they desperately want to hire; for every unemployed person in the United States, there are 1.6 unfilled positions. New laws must deal with the millions who are here now illegally, including by giving them a path to earn citizenship. And Washington needs to invest far more resources to meet the demand of processing the record numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers clamoring for admission.

All of that, however, requires a bipartisanship that is not within sight. Congress hasn’t come close to enacting a broad overhaul of immigration law for a decade, when the Senate passed a measure by a bipartisan 2-to-1 margin only to have the Republican-run House refuse to consider it. If that bill had become law, it would by now have reduced the federal budget deficit by $197 billion and added $276 billion to Social Security, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis.

The polarization over immigration is relatively new. In past centuries, pro- and anti-immigration sentiment existed largely without regard to party. Now, however, the Republican Party has transformed from being mostly pro-immigration — it was Reagan who signed the last comprehensive law, including amnesty for millions, in 1986 — to being unabashedly nativist. Separate from their hostility to undocumented migrants, three-quarters of Republicans favor a decrease in legal newcomers. (The good news: The same Gallup poll in July showed most Americans say immigration is positive for the country.)


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The Republican Party was already turning against migration when Donald Trump opened his 2016 presidential campaign by tarring arrivals from Mexico as murderers and rapists. Then as now, he was playing to the base. Eight years later, as the Republicans’ likely 2024 nominee, the former president echoes Nazi-era rhetoric in claiming immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

So much for the melting pot.

Trump promises, if reelected, to mount an unprecedented deportation of millions of undocumented residents, many of whom have been here for years and are raising children who are U.S. citizens, and to build sprawling detention camps for those newly nabbed at the borders.

To see how grossly changed the Republican Party is on this score, here’s Reagan in his farewell address: “Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas. … If we ever close the door to new arrivals, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

And here’s Trump earlier this week: “They’re coming in from prisons all over the world. … Some of these people make our prisoners look like very nice people.”

Never mind that Trump’s first and third wives, the mothers of four of his five children, were immigrants. He’s leading his willing party in trying to destroy what’s been an American superpower.

There’s hope in the fact that, as just about any business owners can attest, the nation needs immigrants so badly. Eventually, perhaps Republicans will relent, if only out of self-interest.