How Would Our Founding Fathers Have Dealt With Immigration Reform and Chinese Spying?


With an immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives, the prospects for a comprehensive updating of America’s immigration policies look increasingly dim. Meanwhile, allegations abound that the Chinese government is condoning the piracy of American intellectual property, and conducting its own cyber espionage on U.S. military programs. What do these two issues have in common? Both have important implications for America’s position in the world, and both were discussed by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago.

In the 21st century, if the U.S. hopes to compete economically with its fellow industrialized democracies and with rising powers such as China, it will need as many of the world’s most skilled workers as it can get, and until the American education system begins to turn out more of them, immigration will likely have to provide the rest. In the same vein, the U.S. will put itself at a competitive disadvantage if it allows theft of its’ companies’ intellectual property (a process believed to currently cost the U.S. economy about $300 billion per year, the majority of it lost to Chinese activity). It will unnecessarily accept the loss of large sums of money, money that might otherwise be paying benefits to the U.S. in the form of tax revenue, investments in new technologies, and the hiring of new employees. Taking a page from Hamilton’s book can help Americans expand their educated and skilled workforce while maximizing the benefits reaped from the modern world economy.

For a Founding Father often described as a conservative (see here, for example), Hamilton (himself an immigrant to the American colonies from the Caribbean island of Nevis) was much more enthusiastic about immigration than was Thomas Jefferson, his ideological arch-rival. Whereas Hamilton’s encouragement of the immigration of skilled workers went hand in hand with his policy of promoting American industry, Jefferson, an opponent of industrialization and urbanization, feared that large-scale immigration would dilute civic virtue in America, by filling it with persons who may not share Americans’ (or at least Jefferson's) agrarian idealism. Jefferson wrote contemptuously of Hamilton and his allies, a supposed conspiracy of economic and governmental elites, that “they all live in cities” (quote from Founding Brothers, by Joseph J. Ellis), and that Americans should shun immigrants “as we do persons infected with disease” (quote from Land of Promise, by Michael Lind).

Hamilton particularly sought to convince European inventors and skilled craftsmen, especially workers from Britain, to come to the U.S., bringing their knowledge of British manufacturing techniques with them. Hamilton encouraged this despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that British manufacturers were not allowed to leave Britain without the permission of their government, and if permission was given, each emigrant had to pay 50 pounds to leave the British Isles. For America’s first Treasury Secretary, industrial espionage was a necessary evil, a measure to help the new republic hold its own with other European powers, economically and politically.

In the 21st century, the U.S. once again needs an immigration policy that is heavily biased in favor of attracting skilled workers to America’s shores. The bill passed by the Senate is an excellent way for the U.S. government to promote that goal. In addition to dramatically increasing funding for security along the U.S.-Mexico border, and providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have not committed a felony since crossing the border, the bill allocates up to 250,000 visas annually to prospective immigrants based on a points system, one in which points are allotted in part based on education and employment background. The bill also does away with country-specific limits on employment-based visas, addressing the problem of backlogs holding back many highly educated potential immigrants from countries like China and India.

All the while, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal budget deficit would be reduced by about $135 billion over 10 years. If the current House of Representatives is truly interested in ensuring that the U.S. can attract as much talent as it can, solving the long-vexing problem of how to treat the millions of persons already in the U.S. illegally, and reducing deficit spending, it should at the very least allow the immigration reform ratified by the Senate to come to a vote.

Particularly relevant to the current immigration debate is the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. In a speech given in front of the Statue of Liberty upon signing the bill, which replaced an overtly discriminatory system of country quotas with one that gave priority to highly skilled individuals and to those whose close relatives were already in the U.S., President Lyndon B. Johnson, echoing Hamilton’s sentiments probably without realizing it, said:

“This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here. This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country — to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit — will be the first that are admitted to this land.”

Unfortunately, the architects of the 1965 law did not foresee large-scale “chain migration,” where the number of people immigrating due to family ties dwarfed the number of individuals coming to the U.S. based on educational or economic merit. If America’s leaders today see immigration policy as a means to the end of greater national prosperity, rather than an expression of a desire (however admirable) to reunite families, in the spirit of LBJ, they will reverse that trend.

As for modern forms of technological piracy and espionage, one might simply argue that China’s leaders are merely doing what the U.S. policy makers did more than 200 years ago. And this is, to a certain extent, true. But while there are obvious similarities between the practices Hamilton promoted and China’s activities today, the situations in which they have taken place are quite different. In the late 18th century, the U.S. was essentially building its industrial base from scratch, at a time when economic dependence on Britain or other European powers would have put America’s hard-won political independence at risk.

Modern China, by contrast, is already the second largest economy in the world, and has been growing rapidly for more than 30 years. Whatever economic and military advantages may be gained by Beijing by stealing American secrets are likely outweighed by the political damage done by such theft. It is as much in America’s national interest to protect its economic and military secrets as it is in China’s interest to gain access to those same secrets. The U.S. government, therefore, would be remiss if it did not do all it could to protect its official secrets, and the trade secrets of American companies, from espionage by other countries.

It is not hypocritical for the U.S. to condemn and fight back against Chinese economic espionage despite the fact that a U.S. Treasury Secretary once encouraged Americans to steal British secrets. The simple truth is that the interests of powerful countries are bound to conflict from time to time, in the future as they have in the past. This is not a simple question of right and wrong, it is a question of power and prosperity, issues that, while they have ethical dimensions to them, are not easy to deal with from a strictly ethical perspective.

Going forward, Americans stand to reap substantial economic benefits in the realms of immigration and intellectual property by remembering some of the lessons of Alexander Hamilton. In the former realm, they should recall his emphasis on bringing the highly skilled within America’s borders. In the latter, Americans, especially policymakers, would be well advised to look at the subject from both U.S. and Chinese perspectives, understanding Chinese motivations while bearing in mind U.S. interests. America has little to lose and much to gain by following in Hamilton’s footsteps.

This is Part 2 in a series on the Hamiltonian Perspective. For Part 1, an introduction to the series, click here.