Immigration is a popular topic among journalists. Although it’s always controversial, it seems to be getting more attention lately. That’s ironic, because we are a nation of immigrants. People were moving here from all over the globe long before Great Britain established 13 colonies along our Atlantic coast. They came for various reasons, but civil liberties, religious freedom and economic opportunity convinced many of them to abandon their homelands and begin new lives on an unknown continent.
Each of these motives is enticing, but economic opportunity probably has the broadest appeal. Mankind has only been gathering statistics about human migration for a few generations, but we don’t need numbers to prove that economic advantage is a powerful incentive for immigration.
Logic is the only proof we need. No matter how persuasive other motivators are, few people would move to a distant land without the prospect of a higher standard of living. I used to tell my history students the people who came to the New World weren’t the folks who lived well in the Old World. We are the descendants of the Old World’s oppressed, persecuted, hungry and enslaved.
There is an indisputable connection between economic change and human migration. It explains why a resident population encourages or discourages immigration. Newcomers are only welcome when their labor, knowledge and skills, or financial resources are needed. They are resented when those needs diminish.
This isn’t anything new. In the middle of the 19th century, we encouraged Irish and Chinese laborers to come here. We needed them to build railroads. Our attitude toward them changed when the railroad construction ended. Then they looked for other jobs. Because they often accepted lower wages, they made life harder for American-born job seekers. That’s when statements like “No Irish need apply!” began appearing on help-wanted signs and in newspapers.