Should the United States Impose Greater Limits on Immigration?

“Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These lines from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” are engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. They affirm the fact that when the statue was dedicated, the United States welcomed immigrants from all lands and all stations in life. Certainly there were times when nativist sentiment boiled over into hostility and violence against “foreigners,” but on the whole the message was clear: the United States was the only country in the world that offered unrestricted immigration to the people of other countries. Indeed, immigration is a major part of our identity as a nation. We are, as the maxim goes, a nation of immigrants.

Not until the end of the nineteenth century did Congress raise the question of limiting access to this country. At that time, however, critics argued against open immigration on two grounds: first, that there was no longer any room for new immigrants, and second, that immigration was changing the demographics of the nation. These arguments eventually prevailed, and in 1924 Congress passed legislation that established strict quotas, bringing a century of open immigration to an end. Some of the arguments raised at the beginning of the century are also being made today by those who would limit, or in some cases entirely end, immigration. For example, today’s critics of American immigration policy say that in an era of global competition the United States can no longer provide jobs to new immigrants. They point out that since 1965, when new, less-restrictive immigration quotas were instituted, the United States has accepted so many immigrants from developing nations that the racial and ethnic character of the country is changing. There is also fear that less-restrictive policies leave the country vulnerable to terrorism and threats to national security. For some, the current immigration situation signals the beginning of the end for the United States. For others, it underscores the hope and promise that has always been at the heart of the American dream.