The University Bookman


Winter 2017

What Can the Declaration of Independence Teach Us About Immigration?

Debates about immigration usually center on two interrelated questions: on what basis should we decide whom to let into our country and what should we expect of immigrants once they arrive in America? Among our elites, the dominant view seems to be that we should not discriminate based on country of origin, nor should we demand immigrants assimilate to our way of life. Multiculturalism teaches that all cultures are equal (except our own, of course, which has caused so much harm to others) and that there is strength in diversity.

If applied consistently, such an approach to immigration would, in the long run, dissolve the national ties that bind us into one people. In response, some argue that America is a white, Christian nation and that our immigration policy should not dilute its essential character. To defend their point, they like to cite John Jay’s description in Federalist 2 of Americans as “a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

Setting aside the fact that Jay made the colonists out to be much more unified and homogenous than they actually were, this approach to immigration does not sit well with most Americans and does not find support in our founding documents. Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Constitution for that matter, are people classified according to race or religion (or any other of the categories that define contemporary Identity Politics).

The Declaration of Independence, it is true, does not address the question of immigration (with the exception of the seventh grievance leveled against the King) and cannot give us precise policy prescriptions. It can, however, help us think more clearly about immigration because it articulates certain fundamental truths we seem to have forgotten.

The first is that governments exist to secure the rights of their own people—not those of the rest of mankind. The Declaration does not begin with the self-evident truth of human equality, but with “one people” assuming its separate and equal station in the world. Mankind, we first learn, is divided into various peoples and “Powers of the Earth.”

People set up governments to ensure “their Safety and Happiness” and provide “for their future security.” Immigration policy, like all other policy, should therefore serve the interests and well-being of the American people. One should not confuse the universal duty not to infringe upon the rights of man with the duty of each government to secure the rights of its people only.

There are times when we may deem it best to encourage the migration of foreigners hither (as the colonists tried to do). But circumstances change. As a sovereign political community, we are always free to enact whatever immigration measures we deem to be in our national interest.

We could, for instance, decide at any given moment to completely block off all immigration. While one could argue against the wisdom of such a measure, it could not be said to be unjust. No one has a right to immigrate to America or to become an American.

To state the matter even more bluntly, we may discriminate as we see fit in matters of immigration. It is true that we believe all men to be created equal and therefore recognize that anyone can in principle immigrate to our country and become a part of our people. In practice, though, we are not blind to the fact that our common humanity is shaped by the laws, mores, traditions, and religious beliefs of particular nations. The rights of man are refracted through the dense medium of the regime.

The various “Systems of Government” form the minds and characters of people in very different ways. Not all ways of life are therefore equally compatible with ours. The Declaration, for example, distinguishes a “civilized nation” like Great Britain from “the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.” While we today object to this characterization of Native Americans, we still are horrified by those, like ISIS, who eschew the rules of civilized warfare.

Although the Declaration does not contain a typology of regimes, it does reveal some of the important characteristics of ours. The list of grievances teaches that we are a people accustomed to representative government who think “the right of representation in the legislature … inestimable.” We expect the judiciary to be independent, the military to be subordinated to civil power, and we know “the benefits of trial by jury.” We jealously guard our rights and oppose “with manly Firmness” any encroachment upon them.

In sum, we are “a free people,” whose character had been shaped over the centuries by “the free system of English laws.” The Declaration suggests we should look for similar attributes in potential immigrants so that they may more readily become “one people” with us upon arrival. Our dedication to the proposition that all men are created equal should therefore not blind us to the fact that these same men, because of the diversity of political regimes and the power of deeply ingrained habits, are not all equally prepared to live as free men.  

David Azerrad is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics and the AWC Family Foundation Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Posted: February 6, 2017 in Symposia.

Did you see this one? book cover

The Dignity Conspiracy and its Strange Hold on Our Souls
Richard M. Reinsch II
Spring 2011

The ... conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.

Russell Kirk


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