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Immigration

02/07/08 5:55PM By Olin Robison
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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison is a past president of both Middlebury College and the Salzburg Seminar. And he says that - taking the long view - it's interesting to see how our attitudes about global issues like immigration have changed.

(ROBISON) Way back in the days of the Cold War the United States stood four-square against the Soviet Union on a broad range of issues. We said repeatedly that we stood for the free movement of ideas, goods, information and people across international borders. We made much of the fact that the Soviets did not allow most of their people freedom to travel (they were afraid of defections). We and our European allies even pushed the Soviets into signing the so-called Helsinki Accords, signed by 35 heads of State in Helsinki in August of 1975. President Ford signed for the US; Leonid Brezhnev signed for the Soviet Union.

Much of that has now changed. For one thing, the Soviet Union is no more. Beyond that, restrictions on the free movement of people have become limitations on immigration - especially here in the US and in Europe. Various candidates for President of both parties, but especially the Republicans, are practically falling all over each other just to show how tough they intend to be on illegal immigrants.

I personally find all of this a bit odd, given the history of the United States. The immigrant ancestry of most Americans has tended over the years to leave most of us somewhat ambivalent on the issue.

It has long seemed to me, as an academic, that much of the energy and creativity so constantly present in America has come from this country's extraordinary ability to steal so many of the most gifted young people from other countries.

We may now have entered a new period owing to two phenomena: the first is a fear of foreigners produced in reaction to 9/11- and the megaphone effect that has allowed individuals such as Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh to push their views on others via television and radio. We are witnessing, to say the least, a one-sided debate. Public figures dare not take the other side lest they be vilified and destroyed as public figures.

But the truth is - or at least "A" truth is - that America is an immigrant nation - even if current views on the subject remain decidedly mixed. The current debate - such as it is - has produced an odd alliance of old fashioned liberals teamed up with big business, both of which would like to keep things pretty much as they are. They have totally different reasons: the Liberals have a human rights agenda while big business likes the cheap labor. Both sides are uncomfortable in their alliance, but of such stuff are politics made.

Way back in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, the British Prime Minister who had defeated Winston Churchill at the polls, Clement Atlee, announced that anyone in the Commonwealth - which was and is made up of former British colonies - could become a British Citizen and live in the UK. It was a bold move, which almost certainly later sustained the British economy.

I predict that when we eventually get through the current hysteria over immigration, almost no one will like the results, and then, in a few years, we will do it all over again.

Regular listeners to these commentaries will not be surprised to learn that I do not come down on this issue where the aforementioned Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh come down. Even so, the subject is not going to go away any time soon. So, stay tuned. We are quite likely to pass this way again.


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