Thomas Jefferson: How Porous Should Our Borders Be?

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson


You and I are “melting pot” people; citizens, that is, of that country set apart by Heaven to receive those in search of the good life from every nation, kindred, tongue and people.

As such, we, of all people, ought to recognize the value of a liberal immigration policy.

President Thomas Jefferson, a descendent of immigrants presiding over a nation of immigrants, thought so.

In his first annual message, dated, December 08, 1801, he asked of those who thought to impose an extremely arduous course to citizenship for the immigrant (a 14 years residency requirement), a few probing questions:

Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The constitution, indeed, has wisely provided that, for admission to certain offices of important trust, a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. 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? (1)

The advocates of today’s liberal immigration policies, or of far more radical proposals for wide-open borders without any legal bounds, qualifications, or safeguards might quote Jefferson and feel justified.

But President Jefferson also suggested that the United States balance her open arm policy “with restrictions, perhaps, to guard against the fraudulent usurpation of our flag; an abuse which brings so much embarrassment and loss on the genuine citizen, and so much danger to the nation of being involved in war”.

“[N]o endeavor”, he said, “should be spared to detect and suppress” this sort of immigrant. (2)

So much for blind liberality. Not every immigrant is a friend of America. President Jefferson was no fool.

Mr. Jefferson had other concerns too. In his Notes on Virginia, he reflects,

It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent.

“Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet from such we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants.

He warns, nearly prophetically:

They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles., with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass. (3)

There is theory and then there is reality. Jefferson was schooled in both. He knew that to every liberal law there were reasonable limits.

We need artisans, he admitted, but not enemies. We want true freedom seekers to come, but without “extraordinary encouragements.” (4)

What would Thomas Jefferson, therefore, think of an immigration policy today that with flashing lights invites the masses of the world come from countries – some of whom that hate us – to a feast of free food, free health care, free education, free social security benefits, and free instant voter registration cards so that they might immediately cast their vote for that political party which promises them the most free perks? It is hard to imagine Jefferson calling it anything but extraordinarily unwise and revolutionary. Jefferson would have proposed something better;—a policy liberal in its extension of the blessings of liberty to those who desire it and conservative in its economic and political common sense.

1. Bergh, Albert Ellery, Editor. “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” Volume 3, p. 338.
2. Ibid., pgs. 338-339.
3. Bergh, Volume 2, p. 120.
4. Ibid., p. 121.

Steve FarrellSteve Farrell is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Moral Liberal, one of the original pundits with (1999-2007), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.