When President Barack Obama needs strength, he invokes a Republican, Abraham Lincoln. At his inauguration, Obama took the oath on the same Bible that Lincoln used and embraced the Lincoln legacy throughout the event. The sixteenth president's life and wisdom contains a rich cache of advice for any chief executive in search of guidance, regardless of party. And on the subject of immigration reform the current president would do well to emulate his predecessor's compassion and spine.
Immigration? Lincoln? Yes, like President Obama, Lincoln lived in an era when immigration was a controversial matter. Between 1840 and 1860 approximately 4.5 million newcomers arrived, most of them from Ireland, the German states, and Scandinavian countries. Many more crossed back and forth across the border with Mexico, newly drawn in 1848. States, not the federal government were charged with counting, interrogating, and medically inspecting immigrants. Port procedures at state depots such as New York's Castle Garden were haphazard at best. Millions of Catholics arrived striking fear in the hearts of American Protestants. Nativistic anti-Catholicism cropped up in a pulp literature featuring anti-papist stereotypes and undergirded the politics of the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s. While never serious contenders for national political power, there were Know Nothing governors, mayors, and congressmen who built their careers on opposing immigration.
When the Republican Party was formed in 1854, some Know Nothings drifted into the new party and wanted Republicans to adopt an anti-immigrant stand. Lincoln refused. In an 1855 letter to his Springfield friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln wrote, "I am not a Know Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?. . .When the Know-Nothings get control, it [our Declaration of Independence] will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners, and catholics[sic].' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty - Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy. . . ." In 1860, Lincoln ran on a platform that came out against "any change in our naturalization laws, or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad."
As we approach the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War, America once again lives under the cloud of war and economic uncertainty. Workers in search of employment pour across our borders. Islamic immigrants strike fear in the hearts of some Christians. Though the federal government is charged with creating and enforcing immigration policy, private vigilante groups and now some states are trying to usurp that authority. As did Lincoln, President Obama must clearly articulate his position on immigration reform, substituting clear fresh vision for the blurry confusion of a contentious, befuddled Congress.
Democrats and Republicans agree that unauthorized immigrants now in the U.S. must not receive amnesty without paying a price. Some advocate fines, others suggest harsher measures. During the Civil War, Lincoln called on all Americans, including recently arrived immigrants, to serve their country. Perhaps a broader conception of national service is the answer in much the same way that many people convicted of non-violent crimes pay their debt to society in hours of community service. The tasks and time commitment for foreign-born engineers who have over-stayed their visas and those for manual laborers already working two jobs to support their families might differ, of course. Those immigrants who help a community clean up after a natural disaster or repair the swings in a playground pay a debt even as they are incorporated into communities they serve. All children need safe swings - natives and newcomers.
Whatever action Mr. Obama takes on immigration, it must honor Lincoln's memory, reflect his fairness and decency, and embody his courage in time of crisis. Trading platitudes with the Arizona governor who signed a repressive legislation that feeds on anti-immigrant sentiment won't do.