George Will: History Puts Current Immigration Debate into Perspective

From the start, America has been a nation of immigrants, and any schoolchild here can tell you so. That said; we often forget the key role that immigrants played in settling the western frontier, as our nation pushed across the continental vastness, to the shores of the Pacific. We forget that immigrant grit, hard work, and determination are all part of the story of how the west was won.

In a recent column in the Washington Post, George Will suggests we’d be well advised to brush up on our American history, because its lessons shed light on our current immigration debate. [See The Door-Opener to America, by George F. Will, The Washington Post, 26.Dec.2012.] Will notes that 2012 was the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862, legislation that sought to populate the American frontier by offering free homesteads – 160-acre farms – to anyone who would work the land for five years. “The act,” says Will, “was intended to attract immigrants from abroad – immigrants who would put down roots. For this purpose it provided all the requirements for citizenship.”

According to Will, historian Blake Bell describes the Homestead Act was “an accommodating immigration law” – one designed to attract newcomers from overseas. It was no coincidence, Bell says, that it took the same amount of time to secure a homestead as it did to secure citizenship: five years. Population statistics bear this out:

“By 1870, the foreign-born population of Wyoming and Montana was 39 percent; of Dakota Territory, 34 percent; of Nebraska, 25 percent. And the peak years of national immigration, 1905-1914, were the peak years of homestead claims.”

What does this have to do with life in 21st-Century America? In short: everything, as Mr. Will argues cogently:

“Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America’s workforce needs replenishing.”

In other words, we should heed the lessons of our history, and understand that immigrants still have a vital role to play in the growth of our economy and society. Whether you call it “pioneer spirit” or “entrepreneurial spirit,” immigrants have it by the truckload: these people are risk-takers, brave enough to leave behind everything comfortable and familiar to start a new life in a distant land. We certainly could use more of this spirit. It’s something to think about, now that immigration reform is back on the agenda in Washington.

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