Immigration and the Undying Lands

I was listening to John Derbyshire earlier today and he pointed out that every mainstream article about illegal immigration is seemingly required to use the word “dream” multiple times. Supporters of amnesty and increased immigration often use the word to describe the reasons why people come to America. It tugs at the heartstrings, right? Young people, growing up in poverty-stricken countries, risking their lives to come to America, the land of opportunity?

I realized that this sort of rhetoric exposes an assumption that immigration advocates all share: that there is something special about America as a place, rather than a people. Liberals such as President Obama talk about how all of these people crossing the borders are here to improve their lives and achieve their dreams. Republicans such as Jeb Bush are convinced that Hispanic illegal immigrants will transform into Republican voters once they set foot on our soil. Libertarian open-borders advocates desire a political system that allows anyone to go anywhere. All of these people remind me of a character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium named Ar-Pharazon.

Ar-Pharazon was the last king of Numenor, an island populated by a special group of men and women. They had been given this land by the gods as a gift, a reward for their solidarity with the gods and the elves in the War of Wrath and in recognition of their shared descent from the elves as well. However, they were given one command: They could not sail to the uttermost west and set foot in Valinor, the Undying Lands. Valinor was the home of the gods, and they had called the immortal elves to come west to live with them. Men, however, were mortal, and had a different destiny. As Ar-Pharazon grew old and neared the end of his life he became jealous of the immortality of the gods and the elves. He decided to go to Valinor to seize this power for himself.

Ar-Pharazon’s mistake was in assuming that there was something special about Valinor that conferred immortality upon its residents. He seemed to think that just by setting foot in the Undying Lands that he too would become immortal like the elves. He made a category error, however – the Lands were not Undying because of some special virtue of themselves, rather they were simply the home of the beings who did not die.

For more than two centuries, America has been exceptional among the nations of the earth. We have inherited a society based upon rule of law, equality before the law, freedom and liberty, a respect for hard work and individual success, and a belief in civic participation. These virtues are not inherent to the soil of America, but codified in the soul of our society. America is exceptional because it is filled with Americans. Until recently, people from all over the world came to America because they wanted to be Americans. Irish and English, German and Polish, Chinese and Japanese, Italian and Greek, they all came here because they wanted something that their old homes did not provide. They wanted a part of the virtue of America, and most importantly, wanted to become Americans themselves.

That has changed. Today, immigrants (legal and illegal) are coming to acquire the virtues of America while retaining allegiance to their old homes too. Mexican immigrants come here and work, or take advantage of social welfare programs, but they still cheer for Mexico rather than the US in the World Cup. Somali immigrants are coming to Minnesota and instead of assimilating, are looking to implement sharia law. Civil disorder and balkanization is in the cards for a nation that no longer has a melting pot.

To the left, I would ask: What do you do when the millions of people you are inviting in to share the largess of America become intolerant to gays, women, or other races? To Republicans, I ask how you expect millions of people from countries that have no tradition of representative democracy, civic participation, and rule of law to keep from voting in the sorts of tyrants who will undo these virtues? To the open-borders folks, I ask how you expect to maintain a civilized nation that guarantees individual liberty when you grant voting privileges to millions of people who do not believe in individual liberty?

America itself is not exceptional. American people have been exceptional throughout history. We inherited a belief in individual liberty and a mistrust of a powerful centralized authority that goes back almost a thousand years to the signing of Magna Carta. If we are to maintain a nation that protects freedom and liberty, than we must have a people who believe in those things. As we can see lately in Iraq and Egypt, there are no guarantees.