Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Current policy could be improved, but American greatness depends on welcoming foreigners.
George Washington set in motion a strategy so radical that it made this country the wealthiest and strongest on Earth — it made America great.
He embraced a vision for an open America that could almost be read today as a form of deep idealism or altruism. “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions,” he told newly arrived Irishmen in 1783. He assured them they’d be “welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
But Washington’s vision wasn’t primarily about charity or helping others. It was about building the kind of country that he wanted the United States to become. Greatness would require great people. America would need more than it had.
The contemporary debate around immigration is often framed around an axis of selfishness versus generosity, with Donald Trump talking about the need to put “America first” while opponents tell heartbreaking stories of deportations and communities torn apart. A debate about how to enforce the existing law tends to supersede discussion of what the law ought to say.
All of this misses the core point. Immigration to the United States has not, historically, been an act of kindness toward strangers. It’s been a strategy for national growth and national greatness.
Washington and his fellow founders could have established America as a kind of exclusive club. The present-day United States undoubtedly would still be a prosperous and pleasant nation. But our cities would be smaller, our global influence would be reduced, and many fewer of the world’s cutting-edge companies would be based here. We would suffer, as small countries tend to, from our talented and ambitious young people seeking their fortunes in bigger places abroad. With many fewer people, it wouldn’t be the great nation it is today.
While a lot has changed since Washington’s time, two fundamentals have not. The United States is still a country with a mission and a desire for greatness on the world stage. And America’s openness to people who want to move here and make a better life for themselves is fuel for that greatness.
Few of our problems can be solved by curtailing immigration. Many could be solved by welcoming more foreigners to our shores.