My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
John Ashley was born in 1625 in Gloucester, England. He and his brother, William, competed hotly for the hand of Lady Jane Cooper with the understanding that the loser would leave the country for new adventures in the colonies. John won the lady’s hand and William headed for America. The lure of adventure was too much, and John and Jane followed William around 1650. They settled in Lancaster, Virginia, and had two sons, Thomas and Isaac, before passing away in 1671.
Further inland nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Roanoke, Virginia, lies the tiny Mount Union graveyard. If you look in the old section you will find the grave of Bryan McDonald II, who died in the summer of 1757. Bryan was born in Ireland sometime in 1686 and was brought to the colonies by his father, Bryan McDonald I. Bryan the Younger was married in New Castle, Delaware, and had 10 children with his wife, Catherine, including the aptly named Bryan McDonald III.
Eleven generations after John Ashley, and 10 generations after Bryan McDonald II, a goofy genetic brew conspired to produce me. John and Bryan are the most recent known immigrants in my family tree from my mother’s side and father’s side, respectively.
My American story, like that of almost every other American, begins with someone leaving one life behind to start a new one in what has been the world’s land of opportunity for more than 400 years: America. This is why Americans instinctively love immigrants and why the political debates over our immigration policy often becomes very emotional.
Gov. Scott Walker reintroduced a dormant aspect of the immigration debate last week with his comment that our legal immigration system should be based on, “first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages.” Up until now, most of the immigration debate had centered on the problem with rampant illegal immigration, but Walker’s statement reminds us that there are also very different perspectives on how our legal immigration system should be managed.
Walker’s position is a populist, protectionist one that resonates with a lot of Americans who are in sectors of the economy that are threatened by new workers who are willing to work for less. But while Walker’s immigration policy position may be popular for some folks, it is also unworkable and harmful to America, which has long thrived by offering opportunity to new Americans, whether they be English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Kenyan, Brazilian or any other heritage.
The notion that protecting American jobs and wages should be the first priority is emotionally attractive, but it would require a costly army of bureaucrats to monitor and throttle immigrants based on what job they might aspire to and the relative impact on wages by industry, region and job role. A gargantuan apparatus like that cannot possibly be universally accurate or fair, thus further aggravating what is already a Byzantine immigration system that frustrates everyone and pushes more people to follow illegal paths to America.
Also, trying to protect Americans’ jobs and wages from immigrants is counterproductive and damaging in the long term. First, remember that legal immigrants are on a path to be Americans themselves. It is not foreigners competing for American jobs — it is new Americans competing with old Americans. Americans have traditionally thrived in competitive environments that sharpen our skills and abilities. It has been precisely this competitive spirit that has driven America’s ascension to the pinnacle of global success. If we remove the grindstone of competition from our labor economy, it will become dull.
Our immigration system should be as simple as possible. We should regulate immigrants to ensure that they are not terrorists, criminals or carrying some nasty disease. Then we should throttle the number of immigrants only by some broad measures to make sure we do not overwhelm our ability to absorb them in our schools, housing and general economy.
Our current legal immigration system is a mess. The answer is not to make it more complicated and difficult. Instead, we should make it easier, faster and cheaper for all aspiring Americans to navigate. We should make it easier to legally immigrate to America and harder to do it illegally.
(Owen Robinson is a West Bend resident.)