As I write this, the US Supreme Court has just issued a temporary order allowing Title 42, a border restriction applied during the Trump administration, to remain in place until the Court makes a later decision.  This may or may not stem the tide of many thousands of immigrants, largely from Central and South America, who are massing at the US-Mexico border in hopes that the end of Title 42 will increase their chances to enter, and remain in, the United States.

At first glance, this ongoing crisis seems to have little to do with engineering as a profession.  But engineers are people, and people have to come from somewhere. 

Curtailed opportunities

The issue of illegal immigration was brought home to me some years ago when I offered a temporary research job to a bright undergraduate in one of my classes. He asked to speak to me in private, and when I met him in my office he said, “Well, I’d like to take the job but I can’t.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“If they search for a Social Security number for me, they won’t find one.” It turns out his parents were Mexican immigrants who entered the US illegally when he was only a child — a Dreamer, in other words.

While I couldn’t do anything for him after that, another faculty member helped him get a job at a private company upon graduation, apparently together with legal help to deal with his immigration status. He has done quite well professionally, and while I don’t know if he has obtained US citizenship yet, he deserves to, as far as I’m concerned.

Border control

The problem of immigration over and above what is legally allowed is a classical dilemma.  On the one hand, there is the question of respect for the rule of law.  A sovereign nation has a right to regulate the influx of immigrants as it sees fit, and the US has gone through three distinct phases with regard to immigration policy since the 1860s.

From then up to about 1920, basically almost anyone who wanted to come to this country could do so, with some racially-based exceptions that discriminated against groups such as the Chinese. A chart from the Migration Policy Institute shows that from 1860 to 1920, nearly 15 percent of US residents were immigrants, meaning they were born outside the US. 

Following World War I, a nativist tendency in politics led to the enactment of severe restrictions on immigration with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which allowed only a few select (mostly Northern European) countries to send a few people a year here, relatively speaking. This sent the percentage of immigrant residents into a long decline, which bottomed out at about 5 percent in 1970, as the absolute number of immigrants entering the country fell from 1930 to 1970. 

The attitude toward immigration changed again in the 1960s, and the quota system was repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As a result, immigration (both legal and the other kind) began a steep increase which has not yet stopped, although COVID-19 slowed it down some. As a result, the percentage of US residents who are immigrants has now almost returned to its historic level of 15 percent.

The other horn of the immigration dilemma is the morality of the thing. The Old Testament Hebrew prophet Malachi had hard words for “‘… those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,’ says the Lord of hosts.” There is the admirable sentiment on a bronze plaque displayed at the Statue of Liberty with the words “Give me your tired, your poor…”, and most of the migrants huddled just south of El Paso as I write qualify as tired and poor. 

Human resources

In the long run, the only national resource that counts is people. Without people, you don’t have a country — you have Antarctica. In America’s annals of racism, different immigrant groups came under the scornful eye of the establishment:  the Irish following the potato famine of the 1840s, the Italians, the Jews from Eastern Europe, the Chinese and Japanese, and most recently, Mexicans and immigrants from Central and South America.

Should we have let them in, those forebears of John F. Kennedy, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Richard Feynman, Jackie Chan, and my own recently deceased PhD advisor, Tatsuo Itoh, who one day in a rare moment of personal revelation, spoke a few words about what it was like growing up as a five-year-old in Tokyo in 1945? 

It is impossible to say “no” to that question, but we have the advantage of hindsight in answering it. Completely unrestricted immigration, with full citizenship granted to everyone who manages to step across the border, is an idealistic dream that could lead to anti-immigration strife and the kinds of social problems that open-arm countries like Germany are presently dealing with.

Massive disobedience of any duly passed law is inimical to good order and public discipline. Such laws should either be enforced, or if public sentiment is no longer in favour of them, they should be changed legislatively rather than be used as a political football and kicked around by the courts.

That being said, America is a nation of immigrants, and in one way or another, immigration has always been a critical ingredient in the nation’s success, a source of vitality and energy that we restrict at our peril.

Let immigration be done decently and in order, not by means of mobs and trailer trucks full of suffocating victims. But anyone who wants to come here pays us a compliment by doing so, and in due time, we should let them, because they or their descendants can be the future’s business leaders, artists, scientists, politicians — and maybe even engineers.

This article has been republished from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics, with permission.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...