It’s become fashionable among the national conservative right to oppose immigration, both legal and illegal. Various primers and mission statements for the movement call for the United States to “drastically reduce legal immigration from its current levels” via a “temporary full immigration moratorium,” citing contemporary immigration as “a source of weakness and instability.”
National conservatives invoke heritage and tradition when they speak of what they want to conserve. But what they often fail to mention—or, at the very least, fail to accurately represent—is how intertwined immigration is in American heritage and traditions. For all their invocations of the Founding Fathers, they offer an incomplete view of what the Founders actually said about immigration.
One of the grievances behind the Declaration of Independence itself centered on immigration. King George III, the Declaration charged, had “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Volokh Conspiracy contributor Ilya Somin has noted this complaint “was aimed at a series of royal orders” that, among other things, “forbade the colonies from naturalizing aliens” and passing laws to promote migration. The regulations directly contributed to “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,” the Declaration explained.
No wonder—in the colonial days, immigration was both a boon to the young America and a headache for the distant Britain. In 1700, the British Parliament “limited the colonies’ ability to grant naturalization and other group rights because it believed that colonial naturalization policies weakened English citizens’ trading positions,” according to a 2021 Cato Institute paper. After a period of liberalization, Britain cracked down on certain colonial settlement and naturalization authorities. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about 2.2 million people were living in the colonies—”much of that growth fueled by the 346,000 European immigrants and their descendants,” the Cato paper noted.
The Founding Fathers turned to questions of citizenship and naturalization soon after the Revolution was won. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates worried that overly harsh barriers to citizenship could prevent deserving immigrants from coming to the nation. Gouverneur Morris had proposed an amendment that would require someone to have been a citizen for 14 years before being able to serve as a senator.
It sparked a vigorous debate: James Madison said he “could never agree” to the amendment since it would “give a tincture of illiberality to the Constitution” and “discourage the most desirable class of people from emigrating to the U.S.” James Wilson, himself a nonnative, lamented that he might be “incapacitated from holding a place under the very Constitution which he had shared in the trust of making.” The delegates eventually adopted a nine-year minimum as their standard.
When Congress addressed naturalization in 1790, it established what the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh has called “the most open naturalization law in the world at the time.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 was imperfect by today’s standards—it did not offer citizenship to Native Americans, indentured servants, or free black people—but it provided a straightforward and relatively open pathway to citizenship to many. Free white people of “good character” could naturalize after living in the country for just two years.
Beyond those political machinations, the Founding Fathers spilled much ink detailing their hope that America would become a safe haven. In correspondence with a Dutch minister and emigrant, George Washington wrote that he’d “always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.” In a 1783 letter concerning Irish arrivals, Washington stressed that America was “open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions.” He once again praised America’s promise “to afford a capacious asylum for the poor & persecuted” in a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson at times wrote skeptically about immigrants, particularly their ability to assimilate. In 1785, he worried about the “heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass” of a population that might result from “as great importations of foreigners as possible.” In 1801, in his first State of the Union address as president, Jefferson took on a different tone. Congress had raised the minimum residency requirement for citizenship to 14 years, prompting the president to request that the body revise its naturalization laws.
“Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?” Jefferson asked. The Constitution provided that “residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design,” he explained. “But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to every one manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us?”
Of course, the Founders were no monolith on immigration. Jefferson would continue to have reservations about assimilation. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751 that he would prefer immigrants to be “the lovely white” and not “all blacks and tawneys.” He worried that Pennsylvania would “become a Colony of Aliens“; if it were to welcome Germans, he reasoned that they could “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them.” As with issues of slavery and suffrage, prejudices of the time often permeated the Founders’ views. They could fail to live up to their promises of equality for all, showing a clear preference for some immigrant groups over others. Black immigrants couldn’t receive citizenship until 1870, and other racist restrictions on naturalization would last far longer.
Still, the policies the Founders embraced are telling: They laid the groundwork for a nation that would have essentially open borders for much of its history. Those policies extended America’s promise not just to those with the fortune to be born on its soil, but those who sought refuge on its shores.
As Abraham Lincoln put it, immigrants and their descendants are bound to the nation, if not through blood. “When they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men,” he said in 1858. “They have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood…of the men who wrote that Declaration.”
“That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”