The statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke once said, "A nation is not a thing of mere physical locality." That is why the debate on immigration policy has become so heated. It is not just a discussion about how many people the nation needs to admit to sustain its economic development. It is, rather, at its core a discussion about just what kind of nation the United States is going to be.
The urgency of the debate on immigration is linked to numbers - and those numbers are staggering. It is estimated that there are currently between 11 million and 12 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. On top of that, an additional 500,000 people successfully cross the border illegally each year, overwhelming a system that is already overburdened. This does not include the 750,000 to 1 million immigrants who legally enter the country each year.
Except perhaps in wartime, the nation has never experienced population shifts of these dimensions, and it is unclear just what kind of sociological consequences such changes will have. Certainly, permitting a population that is broadly unfamiliar with the English language to enter the United States in large numbers is something of an uncontrolled social experiment. The precedents for such an experiment are not promising. History, from Belgium to the Balkans, suggests that societies without a common language are not happy, let alone economically prosperous.
That argument is buttressed by these facts: 90% of the increase in people living below the poverty line has come from the immigrant Hispanic population. Not un-coincidentally, since 1980, the number of Hispanics with incomes below poverty level has increased 162%. (The comparable numbers for non-Hispanic whites is 3% and for African-Americans, 9.5%.) In 2004, the already low median wages for foreign born Hispanics in the United States dropped 1.6%. As the journalist Robert Samuelson has noted, America is literally importing Mexico's poverty.
Even more worrisome, 43% of Hispanics live in neighborhoods with Hispanic majorities - up from 39% in 1990. This is an extraordinary reversal of the usual trend where, as immigrant populations grow in number, they become more, not less, integrated. If demography is destiny, then the American public is right to be concerned about the implications of this statistic.
It is axiomatic that a nation that does not control its borders is not really a sovereign nation. That is why the United States must, before addressing any other issue, reassert control of its borders and enforce existing immigration laws as was outlined in the bill passed by the House of Representatives in 2005.
In this connection, the United States must not grant illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship - amnesty by whatever name. The argument that the Senate immigration bill does not grant "amnesty" because it imposes penalties on illegal immigrants before allowing them to apply for citizenship is tendentious. It is premised on a paradoxical, if unstated, idea that citizenship ought to be a reward for behavior antithetical to the notion of citizenship. Furthermore, it implies that illegal immigration is simply another violation of the law - like speeding or running a traffic light - rather than a negation, one pair of feet at a time, of America's status as a sovereign country.
To be certain, some form of temporary worker program - excluding the possibility of citizenship - should be explored. Many businesses are facing labor shortages because they require work that Americans are not willing to do. A well regulated program that tracks immigrants and that strictly limits their residence in the United States is a sensible solution to this problem.
That said, more than most countries, the United States is not a "mere thing of physical locality." It is not simply territory and people, rather it is, as Lincoln said, a nation dedicated to a proposition. That proposition is one of free government and of ordered liberty. For that idea to endure across generations, there must be a citizenry that is deeply marinated in the cultural and political ethos of the nation - including fluency in its language and its history. Serving time and paying back taxes, as the Senate bill proposes, is not sufficient.
The Senate bill is frivolous about things that responsible nations should not be frivolous about - including the idea of what constitutes a citizen. That is why the United States must be stern in the enforcement of its immigration laws. Because it is not just a matter of how many people cross the border, but of what is in their heads when they get here.