Freedom Is Why Immigrants Come to America

By Richard M. Ebeling

America! The word has meant hope, opportunity and freedom for tens of millions of people over the last two and half centuries. For a good part of those 250 years, the words on the Stature of Liberty in New York harbor have rang true:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Between 1840 and 1914 it is estimated that over 60 million people left tired, tyrannized, and troubled Europe to find new homes, second chances, and better lives for themselves and their children, especially in the “New World.” Of that 60 million about 35 million of them made their way to the United States.

Immigrants and an Imperfect America

Until the early part of the 1900s, the United States was more or less an open land for all new comers. Especially European immigrants needed neither passport nor visa to enter America for most of that time through the various ports of entry, especially that of New York City. (The first major immigration restrictions came in 1880s with limitations on the arrival of Chinese migrants, followed by similar limitations on Japanese immigrants. These were crudely racial in their rationales.)

My grandparents were among those who made their ways as very small children with their families to the United States from Europe in the early years of the 20th century before the start of the First World War. On my father’s side, my grandparents were German and Irish. On my mother’s side they were Russian and Lithuanian Jews escaping religious and cultural persecution and anti-Semitic violence in Imperial Russia.

They did not find a perfect paradise or immediate acceptance in the United States. Native-born Americans whose ancestors had arrived in the United States much earlier often looked down upon the Irish. The Irish were often considered to be drunkards, ignorant louts good only for the most undesirable jobs, and often considered a dangerous alien element by the larger American Protestant majority. The Irish immigrants were predominantly Catholic, and were viewed by many of those Protestants as “Pope-worshipers,” who followed the dictates of their parish priests and could never be “real” Americans.  

During a good part of the 19th century, German immigrants were often times looked at with suspicion, also. Oh, yes, the Germans had a reputation for hard work and diligence. But they would form their own new communities almost completely of fellow Germans; they supposedly resisted learning English, published German-language newspapers that circulated in their neighborhoods, and dreamed of remaining “Germans” within the United States. How could they ever become “real” Americans?

Anti-Semitism in America

Some Americans treated Jews, like my grandparents from Russia, as the “Jesus-murders,” who also would kidnap Christian children to us their blood to make Matzo bread, and who, besides, were considered to be all a bunch of subversive communists. Discrimination abounded. My mother’s father had hoped to become a medical doctor, and in spite of very good grades, had the door to admission into medical school shut in his face; at that time there were informal and unwritten quotas on how many Jews would be admitted into medical schools and the medical profession in the United States.

Instead, he followed his second best alternative for a professional career: he applied to and graduated from pharmacy school, received his pharmacist’s degree, and opened his own drug store in New York City in the mid-1920s. Unfortunately, his business went bust during the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and my grandmother had to find other ways to earn a living to support her family after my grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke that left him half paralyzed for the remaining twenty years of his life. My mother told me that when she was looking for her first job after graduating from high school in the late 1930s, it was still possible to find want ads in New York City newspapers that said, “Jews need not apply.”

Why am I telling these stories? To prove that America has never been a perfect society? That hypocrisy and discrimination towards different types of minority groups from many different races, religions, and ethnicities have suffered hard times in the United States? And that forms of it continue up to today, only now sometimes against different minority groups than in the past? Or that America has not always lived up to the promises of its own stated principles of political, social, and economic individualism?

All that is not a secret either to the people who experienced it in the past or those who may still sense it today. So what made and still makes America different? Very few people permanently leave America to find better lives in other places, though admittedly a small handful do. For these last 250 years, the massive migration flows have all been the other way: from the rest of the world to the United States.

American Freedom as the Magnet Drawing Immigrants

President Donald Trump wants to build a Wall along the southern border of the United States. Many of us think this is an undesirable and dangerous thing to do. But what is the rationale for wanting it? To keep people from trying to come into the United States; to keep people out of the country. Compare that with the Berlin Wall that the Soviet Union built in August of 1961 physically splitting the city of Berlin in half until that Wall came down in November 1989. What was its purpose? The Soviet Union and their East German puppet rulers made that very plain: it was to keep people in, to prevent East Germans and East Berliners from escaping to West Berlin and West Germany. (See my article, “The Berlin Wall and the Spirit of Freedom”.)

So why have people come to America and almost always stayed? Put simply, individual freedom. We say and refer to this so much and so often that it has almost become an empty phrase, like when you repeat the same word quickly over and over and over again in your head or from your mouth until it seems to have lost its meaning in your mind and is just some sound.

But it is, nonetheless, true that it is freedom that has drawn people to America.

People usually stay in the region or country where they have been born for a variety of reasons: its where they grew up with family and friends, and it represents “home” in all its various aspects; it’s the language and culture that they feel part of and with which they feel comfortable; it may be the physical environment that they have come to love and care about. It is not easy for many people to give these things up, to uproot themselves by moving to a new land that is “foreign” to them in language, culture, customs, attitudes, and institutions. To make such a move is very much a conscious and deliberate choice.

So why have so many come? The reason is that in America, far more than in most other lands in the past and in many cases even now, the political is separated from the economic, the government from the marketplace. It is not that government has not or does not interfere into economic activities, but that throughout most of American history the pattern of political intervention, regulation, control and restriction was noticeably less than that practiced in other countries around the world.

The Liberal Principle of a Free Society

What guided America was a set of classical liberal principles. Or as the German free market economist, Wilhelm Röpke, expressed it in a slightly different context in his book, International Order and Economic Integration (1959, p. 75):

It is the liberal principle that economic affairs should be free from political direction, the principle of a thorough separation between the spheres of the government and the economy, between sovereignty and the apparatus which provides economic goods, between the Imperium and the Dominium, between the political power and the economic power . . .

[To a significant extent in the 19th century] the economic process was thereby removed from the sphere of officialdom, of public and penal law, in short from the sphere of the “state” to that of the “market,” of private law, of property, in short to the sphere of “society,” and this did away with the greater part of the causes of conflict [between governments, and among people in society].

This absence of government interference from much of economic and social life stood out as unique quality to the American experience. It was noticed and commented upon by almost all of the visitors who came to the United States in the early and middle decades of the 19th centuries, and who then wrote accounts of their journeys upon returning to their home countries in Europe. They highlighted the reality of free men, making and finding their own way, through the voluntary associations of commerce and markets, charitable and community affairs, with little government involvement and interference.

Private Bigotry in the North, Political Slavery in the South

At the same time, they did not turn a blind eye to the bigotry, bias, and some time individual or mob acts of violence they observed against some migrant groups trying to make their new lives in America. They described them and condemned such conduct as morally repugnant in themselves and as an insult to the ideals upon which the United States was founded, and which hypocritically those same Americans glorified in their rhetoric.

But except in the South before the Civil War, there were few instances of state-sponsored, state-endorsed or state-enforced discrimination and persecution of ethnic, racial or religious groups. There had been in earlier colonial times, but by the mid-decades of the 19th century, neither the federal government nor few state governments gave their legal sanction to such actions (other than in such forms as the notorious and infamous Fugitive Slave Act, for instance).

Though women did not possess the voting franchise, the classical liberal and fiery feminist British author, Harriet Martineau, in her Society in America (1837), based on a two-year visit to the United States, pointed out that in spite of the social prejudices among men concerning the role of women in the greater society, women in America had wide latitude to own and inherit property, manage and direct commercial enterprises and farm businesses, and take leadership roles in important issues of that time, especially, though not only, in the anti-slavery abolitionist movement in the North.

Only in the old South did the problem of a pervasively politicized marketplace exist because of the “peculiar institution” of slavery that separated free and slave-owning whites from black Africans held in perpetual bondage and compulsory servitude. It is notable that as those waves of immigrants poured into America in those decades before or even after the Civil War, few chose to make their new homes and lives in the Southern states. They looked to the Northern and Western free states and territories for their new futures.

Private Prejudice Could Not Prevent Immigrant Opportunity

Why? Because in the North and West, the political was far more greatly separated from the economic, the governmental from the marketplace, so private prejudices and bigoted behavior could not persistently stand in the way of those waves of immigrants. Regardless of their linguistic, religious and national backgrounds, they could not be permanently hindered from making their way and rising to stations in life far above anything possible if they had remained in their respective countries of origin.

You settled the land and built your farm. You founded a town or opened a business in an existing one, and no one legally could stop you or regulate you out of existence. Some private persons might shun you because of, say, the Christian domination you declared as your faith, or chose not to trade with you because of your national background. But no one could formally use the power of the state to prevent others not sharing those prejudices from doing business with you or participating in various social and charitable associations with you reflecting common interests and community concerns.

And, besides, many if not most native-born Americans, in spite of weak moments of biases, tended to practice what they preached: America was a land of freedom and opportunity, where your past in the old country was behind you, and all that mattered was who you were as an individual in terms of your industry, honestly, and character as a person wanting to be a fellow citizen in liberty.

Even if you faced those problems of private prejudice and bigotry, it was worth putting up with because you were confident and already the young history of America had shown that your children and grandchildren would be fully accepted as and in themselves be “Americans” with all those prejudices behind them, from which they would never have been able to escape in the country from which the immigrant had come. (See my article, “Why 19th Century Writers Said About American Freedom and Prosperity”.)

This is for the most part still true today, in spite of a far more politicized marketplace of government regulation, restriction, and redistribution. It is amazing and amusing how patriotic many immigrants are if you talk with them, compared to native-born Americans. They are thankful and happy to have had their chance to escape from poverty, tyranny, war, and political plunder to now be in a country of general peace, prosperity, and opportunity.

They often work long hours at jobs than many native-born Americans do not want to do, and for pay that those other Americans won’t accept. They build our homes, they take care of our gardens, their clean up our offices after hours and in the middle of the night, they watch our children while we are at work, and they labor as owners or employees in many everyday small shops and stores that service our consumer wants.

If we could go back in a time machine fifty years or a hundred years, the same kinds of work had to be done in the various corners of the marketplace, only we’d see different faces from different parts of the world, speaking different languages, and practicing some other faiths. Where are those who did these jobs in those earlier times? They and certainly their children and grandchildren moved up the socio-economic ladder to other professions, occupations and businesses, just like earlier generations of immigrants had done before them. They joined the American melting pot, as simply “Americans.” (See my articles, “Freedom to Move: Personal Liberty or Government Control, Parts I and II”.)

The danger in American society today is not the arrival of new waves of immigrants from various other parts of the world compared to the past. There are plenty of jobs to fill from engineers to janitors now and in the future. The melting pot had plenty of room for adding new human ingredients to the mix. And there is plenty of space for them to live and work; America is a big country.

The danger comes from the ideological turn away in America from a free marketplace to a mindset wanting more political planning of society based on an identity politics of race and gender, or a presumed social class, and a dislike and disregard for the ideas and ideals of individual liberty, free enterprise, and voluntary association for human dignity, material betterment, and social harmony and peace.  (See my articles, “The Rise of Capitalism and the Dignity of Labor” and  “Clarity on Diversity and Pluralism”.)

If these collectivist ideas do triumph over the individualist tradition upon which America was founded and flourished, then a day may come when migration flows will move in the other direction away from the United States because the hope, dream, and however imperfect reality of America as the great experiment in liberty will have been turned away from and finally lost. The story of America will have reached its end, and everyone in the world will be the worse for it.

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Richard M. Ebeling

 Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER's campus from 2008 to 2009.