What's So Special about America

In a 1987 interview Clarence Thomas said people in Washington need to ask the big-picture questions, starting with this one:

"What is there about this country that will lead people to crawl through sewers, get on innertubes and float across miles of water, to sneak out in the middle of the night, to cram in under trucks and buses, and other things, risk their lives going across mountains, -- what is it about this country that people will do all those things to come in, and what is it about the Soviet Union or Cuba or the Eastern Bloc countries that would force people to do those same things to get out?"


Gov. Pete Wilson of California thinks it's welfare. And he's dead wrong.

During the Cold War, Americans instinctively understood what their country was about, what it offered that was special, why a pregnant woman would go to extreme lengths to have her baby born on U.S. soil.


When I was a little girl, my father told me that such a woman had burst into the U.S. embassy in Moscow and stayed until her child was born a U.S. citizen. I don't know if that story was literally true, but it was the kind of story Americans told their children to teach them important truths about their country: that to be an American was to be free; that freedom was a precious commodity, rare in the world; and that to appreciate freedom was to cheer for the woman who wanted her child to have it.

Now Governor Wilson, along with a growing number of ambitious politicians of both parties, wants to sacrifice the meaning of America to save the welfare state.

He wants to change the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to children born here if their parents are illegal immigrants.

The proposal is murky: Does it apply if one parent is legal? What if the mother is here on a tourist visa? What happens if one of these non-citizens marries a citizen and has children? Will those children be citizens, or shall we apply the old "one drop" rule that governed race in the Jim Crow South? What shall we do about the new underclass of uneducated non-citizens that is created as illegal immigrants drawn here to work have children?

This radical proposal is wrong at a much more fundamental level. It repudiates the founding principles of the country. And it does ,, so to keep "The image of our common God ought to be a passport all over the habitable world," wrote Frederick Douglass. "But bloody and tyrannical governments have ordained otherwise."

the welfare state working. Governor Wilson says we must adopt lineage-based standards of citizenship because "federally imposed expenditures for illegal immigrants have effectively compelled the denial of needed services to legal residents," including "important preventive children's programs [in health, safety, mental-health counseling, pre-school]," Mr. Wilson's pet programs.

The governor wants to transfer the money from one group of net tax-consumers to another. He attacks illegal immigrants for using services they, as non-voters, had nothing to do with establishing, expanding or raising taxes to fund. The advocates of "controlling our borders" misunderstand the history and meaning of those borders. American sovereignty is defined not by the protection of the borders but by the recognition and protection of the natural ++ rights of the people within those borders.

And the first, most natural right is freedom of movement: "Liberty, or freedom, signifieth, properly, the absence of opposition; by opposition, I mean external impediments to motion." That's Thomas Hobbes in "Leviathan."


Frederick Douglass, who knew a thing or two about illegal immigration (to the North, then to England until friends bought his freedom), put it this way. Consider, he said, "the passport system on the continent of Europe. That system you utterly condemn. You look upon it as an unjust and wicked interference, a bold and infamous violation of the natural and sacred right of locomotion. You hold, (and so do I,) that the image of our common God ought to be a passport all over the habitable world. But bloody and tyrannical governments have ordained otherwise; they usurp authority over you, and decide for you, on what conditions you shall travel. They say, you shall have a passport, or you shall be put in prison."

Extensive border controls are a new invention, barely practiced even in Europe until World War I. A century ago, free people still considered them an offense against liberty. When English author Norman Angell left for America in the 1890s, he later recalled, "I had no passport, no exit permit, no visa, no number on a quota, and none of those things was asked for on my arrival in the United States." Yet, despite the claims of today's anti-immigrant groups, no one in those days doubted U.S. sovereignty.

The debate over immigration, legal and illegal, isn't really about the Statue of Liberty or whether someone's grandfather would have escaped the Holocaust if Pete Wilson had been running immigration policy in the early part of the century. It is about the old question of Huckleberry Finn: whether it is wrong to break the law by protecting an individual's freedom.

People who make a sacred principle of the laws against border crossing misunderstand the country in which they live. This is not Germany. America is not a culture that respects law above natural liberty. It is the country of Frederick Douglass and Benjamin Franklin, law breakers who fled slavery and apprenticeship to claim their own lives. It is a cantankerous country, uncomfortable with authority, unlikely to countenance house-to-house searches for illegal nannies or tolerate police who patrol the streets demanding residency papers from random pedestrians.

The immigration laws are not sacred. To the contrary, they are profoundly un-American. That is why even people who grudgingly put up with some impediments to immigration are so uncomfortable with efforts to demonize illegal immigrants as vicious, thieving law breakers. We aren't irrational or inconsistent. We just haven't forgotten that the promise of America is not a welfare check. It is freedom.

Virginia I. Postrel is the editor of Reason magazine.