Liberally Speaking

Solving the immigration problem

July 15, 2010

By Steve Mount

The cliché is that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Often clichés are simply untrue, but in this case nothing could be closer to the truth. With the exception of 1.5 percent of us who, in the 2000 census, reported aboriginal heritage, the vast majority of Americans are the products of immigrant heritage.

The waves of immigration the United States has had include the English, Norwegians, Germans, Irish, Russian Jews, Mexicans, Asians and Armenians. Throughout the 19th century, the United States was a beacon to Europeans escaping famine, economic collapse and war.

At almost any point in history, we can find anti-immigration sentiment, often worked up to a fever pitch. The Italians; the Irish; the Chinese; the latest immigrant demon is Hispanics.

Liberals are often painted with a broad brush, and on immigration there is no exception. We’re soft on illegal immigrants, willing to open our borders to anyone who comes knocking, happy to offer up tax-financed social services to anyone.

These are not the positions that we take, however, and anyone who is willing to do more than 60 seconds of research on the Internet or to talk to a liberal friend will confirm it.

What, then, can we say about how liberals think about immigration?

Liberals are, if nothing else, realistic pragmatists. We recognize that the United States is still a great beacon to people of the world. Department of Homeland Security statistics show that we accept legal immigrants from every corner of the globe: 660,000 in 2007, just over 1 million in 2008 and 744,000 in 2009. The top countries of birth in 2009 were Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and South Korea. In that small list, we can see a wide variety of languages, religions and ethnic groups. Just the sort of melting pot that our children still learn about in civics classes.

People want to come here for all the right reasons and we, as a nation, are willing to let immigrants come. Thankfully, the current debate is less about legal immigration, but what to do about illegal immigrants. These are people we all know are here, whom we all rely on to some degree directly or indirectly, but who we often prefer to pretend don’t exist.

Perhaps it is time to create a new immigration status. Many illegal immigrants don’t want to become citizens — they just want to work to support their families. We are more than happy to allow skilled workers into the United States. We encourage it even, with special visas. The H1-B visa allows people to come to the United States to work, where the intent of the worker is not to be an immigrant. The visa is only good for specific positions and only as long as the person is in the specific job.

There is no equivalent, however, for unskilled workers. Perhaps there should be.

Let’s face it — illegal workers are willing to do things that most Americans are not. Whether it is to clean hotel rooms, pick fruit, milk cows, do simple construction, sew garments or take care of children, the jobs are there because there are illegal immigrants willing to take them. With a special non-immigrant status, allowing certain persons to come to the United States to live and work, we could control the flow better, keep better track of people, even increase tax revenues. Not quite an H1-B visa, with all of its paperwork and sponsorships, but something much more than the illegal status most such workers now have.

Closing off the border is not the answer. Border walls and fences can help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants in some specific places, but we cannot enclose the United States in a protective wall. It is impractical and would give us all a bunker mentality we have been lucky to avoid so far.

Above all, the United States is a place that should be a beacon to the world. To live up to that ideal, we must be compassionate even as we enforce our laws. In creating a new class of visa, we might eventually prevent most illegal immigration — with the added benefit of preventing these poor souls from falling victim to desert heat or, often worse, the villainy of organized crime.

I’m not sure what the answer to the question of illegal immigration is, but I am sure that demonizing illegal immigrants is not it.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at or read his blog at