I don't post much on immigration. It is a messy subject, and I'm not informed enough on the reams of statistics and standard apologetical moves to be able to add much to the discussion; though every now and then I get the conceit that I may have something unique to say on the subject.
However, I do quite often take an interest in the various ways in which our politics degenerates into unreason. You can think of it as a lazy man's activity in a target-rich environment. So, motivated by a recent thread of Maximos', I wanted to point out a particular way in which our discussion of immigration degenerates into unreason.
Whether to permit immigration, how much to permit, and under what terms to permit it, is a prudential judgment. Now there isn't anything particularly magical about the term 'prudential judgment'. It just means that the goodness and wisdom of the decision to be made is highly dependent upon the particular facts and circumstances, in addition to our reasons for acting and our act itself.
However, contra its objective status as a prudential judgment, Ellis Island understood as a normative proposition - that is, permitting the relatively large scale immigration into America which occurred a few generations ago - has become an iconic symbol, along with World War II, of what was good about America in the late nineteenth and twentieth century.
Now many readers of What's Wrong with the World are familiar with the dangers of treating WWII as an iconic symbol of what is good about America. One of those dangers is that abstract parallels are drawn to WWII as a way of attempting to justify present wars: as a way of sweeping aside all the particular facts and circumstances which justified WWII. Saddam, goes the narrative, was just another Hitler, and radical measures are always justified in resisting Hitler. Another danger is that everything done by our side in WWII becomes sacrosanct; so moral atrocities committed by our side in the war, like population bombings, are invoked to justify the notion that jus in bello is an outmoded notion for previous times, no longer applicable to our conduct as technologically enabled moderns.
When it comes to Ellis Island a similar iconography seems to be in play, only moreso. In actual fact previous decisions about immigration were prudential judgments: judgments the wisdom and morality of which are highly dependent on the particular facts and circumstances. But Ellis Island is treated as a Principle: as a moral trump card which undermines the foundation of any opposition to mass scale immigration under any, and in particular the present, circumstances. This is a complete nonsequitur. The Iraq war is not justified by an appeal to World War II iconography: it has to be justified on its own terms. An open Rio Grande is not justified by an appeal to Ellis Island iconography: it has to be justified on its own terms. As a matter of rhetoric, taking away the irrational iconography makes the case for each appear dramatically weaker, it seems to me: and it is telling when an appeal to manifest unreason is what it takes to polemically make a position appear strong.
"Prudential judgment" is not code for a postmodern subjectivism in which there is no such thing as an objectively unwise or an objectively morally wrong decision. But it is also most definitely not code for the notion that the particular facts and circumstances can be ignored: for the notion that this iconic pattern is always the right pattern, independent of facts and circumstances: that large scale Mexican immigration is wise and good right now, because Irish immigration was putatively wise and good then. Each prudential judgment has to be justified on its own merits, based on the particular facts and circumstances, and independent of the historical iconography invoked by partisans to a particular view.