Opinion: Immigration an entrepreneurial act

December 27, 2012


— At the end of this year in which election results reinserted immigration into the political conversation, remember that 2012 is the 150th anniversary of “the first comprehensive immigration law.” This is how the Homestead Act of 1862 is described by Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, Neb., one of the National Park Service’s many educational jewels that make the NPS one of just two government institutions (the other is the U.S. Marine Band) that should be exempt from any budget cuts, for all eternity.

In 1862, the grim year of Shiloh and Fredericksburg, Congress would have been forgiven for concentrating only on preventing national dismemberment. Instead, while defiantly continuing construction of the Capitol dome, Congress continued nation-building. It passed the Pacific Railroad Act to provide for the movement of people and goods to and from the new lands in the West, the Morrill Act to build land-grant colleges emphasizing agriculture, and, most important, the Homestead Act, whose provisions were as simple as the problem it addressed was stark.

What today is called the Great Plains was at that time identified on maps as the Great American Desert. Under the act, $18 dollars in fees entitled homesteaders to farm 160 acres to which they would acquire title for no further cost after five years. Or after six months if they paid $1.25 an acre. (Union soldiers could deduct their time in uniform from the residency requirement.) The act was intended to attract immigrants from abroad — immigrants who would put down roots. For this purpose it provided all requirements for citizenship.

Until then, Bell writes, the states had been “the primary overseers of immigration.” And as an immigration commissioner of New York later testified to Congress, large numbers of immigrants would “come regularly to this country every spring” but would take themselves and their earnings back to Europe in the autumn, not paying taxes and depressing American wages.

The Naturalization Law of 1802 required immigrants to receive certificates (“first papers”) proving that they had declared upon arrival their intention to become citizens. After five years, an immigrant could take the certificate and two witnesses to a courthouse and be naturalized. This law addressed the worry that Europe was deliberately exporting the wretched refuse of its teeming shores — people of (in a Kentucky congressman’s words) “the most turbulent and factious tempers,” accustomed to monarchies and sorely in need of Americanization.

By 1850, the United States had acquired, by hook or by crook (including Indian “removal” and the morally dubious but indubitably beneficial war with Mexico), vast quantities of land. Most of it was uninhabited, unless you counted, as few did, Indians. In 1862, with many citizens fighting, noncitizens were needed to (in an Illinois congressman’s words) “go upon these wild lands” to increase the nation’s wealth.

Bell calls the Homestead Act “an accommodating immigration law” because its requirement that the land be farmed for five years was the amount of time required to become a citizen, and because it began the assimilation of immigrants into American law.

The spirit of the act was optimistic. As the New York Times said, it would attract “the common people of Europe” who are free from the prejudices of “the aristocratic and snobocratic classes.”

Under the Homestead Act, which continued in effect in Alaska until 1986, more than 270 million acres — approximately 422,000 square miles or 2.5 Californias — were privatized. The truth-tellers at the National Archives say most homesteaders came from near their homesteads — Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, etc. Furthermore, speculators, railroads and other sharpies snapped up most of the land: Of 500 million acres dispersed by 1904, only 80 million went to homesteaders. Small farmers settled more land under the act in the 20th century than in the 19th.

Still, Bell rightly notes that the act was an immigration law in effect as well as intent. By 1870, the foreign-born population of Wyoming and Montana was 39 percent; of Dakota Territory’s, 34 percent; of Nebraska’s, 25 percent. And the peak years of national immigration, 1905-14, were the peak years of homestead claims.

Skeptics will say that the Homestead Act which welcomed immigrants to a sparsely populated continent is irrelevant to today. Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America’s workforce needs replenishing.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

Skeptics will say that the Homestead Act which welcomed immigrants to a sparsely populated continent is irrelevant to today. Skeptics should consider not only that immigration is still an entrepreneurial act but also that as the entitlement state buckles beneath the weight of an aging population, America’s workforce needs replenishing.

Good point here. We are changing faster than we imagine, and need new workers.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 5 years, 3 months ago

Maybe so...we also need to kick able bodied people off of entitlement programs.

wigglwagon 5 years, 3 months ago

"America’s workforce needs replenishing."

Apparently, both you and Mr. Will missed the article telling about the 30 million legal residents who are already looking for work in America.

I cannot help wondering if Mr. Will knows the difference between immigration and illegal immigration.

America already admits over a million immigrants a year. Most of them are new workers. Since you say that is inadequate, how many immigrants should be admitted every year?

weeslicket 5 years, 3 months ago

another book report from mr. will.

not quite sure that mr. bell's view of history fits with mr. will's worldview.

DFrancis 5 years, 3 months ago

The Sanctuary illegal alien states of California and Nevada are under water with growing insolvency. Then issuing Driver’s licenses and a path to citizenship for anybody who can slip through the hundreds of thousands of miles of desolate areas without any barrier at all? Why do professionally skilled people even bother to apply legally, when they can be smuggled past border guards or anybody in that criminal frame of mind? Hundreds of thousands of individual wait patiently, but America ends up with the impoverished we must feed, house and keep healthy. Did the shiploads of people who entered America by steamship, through Ellis Island arrive here expecting welfare? NO! There was nothing? No Public assistance, no food stamps or low income housing. Thanks to Presidents Obama he sold us for votes from the “spongers” for food stamps and no real strict restrictions under his watch for all kinds of welfare. All he has managed to do is spend trillions more dollars and attract even more uneducated and desperate, which we must accommodate. Our laws are so porous that pregnant women are smuggling their unborn into the country, so they can apply for citizenship for their child. Once here, the child opens a official portal to birthright citizenship.

We must eliminate this fiat BIRTHRIGHT CITIZENSHIP, by the enacting an Amendment to Senator Kings 14th Amendment bill. Only offspring with a parent, who holds a legal right as a citizen, will be able to gift citizenship to that baby. It’s not complicated and hundreds of billions of more dollars from now on in free schooling to K-12, health services and all the other welfare programs, which the spineless politicians seem not to care about? Other countries can carry out this service to its own countryman, why are we any different. We already offer visas to over a million legal immigrants annually and the majority not even qualified for essential jobs in Science, Techwork, engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workers, as much fraud is involved. Agjobs are not orderly or regulated and so agricultural workers can easily vanish and add their cheap labor to the marketplace, placing low income U.S. labor at a disadvantage to be exploited by bad employers. In addition give legal immigrants who offer higher degrees, business investment and who hire Americans a special preference as a path to citizenship, as their contributions to our society are what we need. Not the poverty dropped on us from other countries that we are forced to support by the chaos in the judicial system?

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DFrancis 5 years, 3 months ago

Are we kidding ourselves that the policy of our government is to protect the population from a silent invasion of illegal aliens? If this was the truth, why is it not a FELONY, to enter this sovereign nation without permission? Doesn't it make sense for rational human beings in Washington to spend our hard earned personal dollars on a double layer fence, encompassed with concertina razor wire, instead of taxing us to cater to the 20 million plus illegal migrants and immigrants? The hundreds of billions of dollars should be used to recruit more ICE and U.S. Border Patrol agents, to audit incorrigible businesses that hire nationals, and enforcement professionals to defend this country against criminals, drug dealers and the dregs from the gutters of central and South America. Something is seriously wrong with those we elect who pander to foreign nationals, instead of pouring our scant currency to our own people in poverty? WHAT IS A MATTER WITH THE WASHINGTON INSIDERS, WHO CARE MORE FOR THESE PEOPLE WHO DISRESPECT OUR LAWS, OUR FLAG, OUR CONSTITUTION AND OUR LANGUAGE?

These lawmakers are dividing this country, especially the Obama administration who wants even more revenue to pay for illegal aliens, instead of spending far less and doing the job, they were elected for? Or as I surmise there was untold numbers of illegal aliens and ‘Freeloaders” who perjured themselves in the presidential election. It was utterly strange or more so questionable, that states with picture ID requirements had a much more favorable voting public for Mitt Romney, GOP and the ever present TEA PARTY? Why are the politicians who are supposed to have our protection in mind, for the people who pay their salaries not voting for the LEGAL WORKFORCE BILL, which is part of the E-Verify Provision? As the great English playwright stated in the tragic saga of Romeo and Juliet “Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo's armpit. Mercutio, furious and appalled, cries "a plague a' both your houses" That is what a large portion of the U.S. population thinks of Democrats, Liberals and the Republicans? It is an outrageous situation with our deficit rising above a 16 trillion dollars and Obama wants more. President Obama will be forever known as the “Entitlement President”. He wants to spend America out of existence, and the Liberal Progressives are pushing him along with their Socialists thoughts. An agenda of open borders and keep spending everybody's tax dollars, and still wanting more.

Orwell 5 years, 3 months ago

Be sure to recycle that tinfoil when you get tired of your hat.

DFrancis 5 years, 3 months ago



PRIME EXAMPLE, LOS ANGELES COUNTY – Year-end closing 2011 figures from the Department of Public Social Services reported that over $646 million in welfare and food stamp benefits were issued to illegal alien parents for their native-born children, announced Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. The $646.2 million consisted of $258 million in CalWORKs (welfare) and $388 million in Food Stamps) — a $21 million increase over the previous year. “With the $550 million for public safety and nearly $500 million for healthcare, the total cost for illegal aliens to this one County taxpayer exceeds $1.6 billion dollars a year,” said Antonovich. “These costs do not include the hundreds of millions of dollars for education.” Californians need to contact their Representative, specifically governor Brown and the Liberal State assembly and demand no more illegal alien pandering, or Californian taxpayers will be taxed even more from now to doomsday.


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