The Atlantic

Immigrants Give America a Foreign-Policy Advantage

History proves they can help the U.S. keep other countries in check.
Source: Jose Cabezas / Reuters

It has often been thought that the composition of the American public, consisting as it does of immigrants from so many lands, is a vulnerability in foreign policy—that, for example, German immigrants would harbor affinities for their land of origin and become disloyal during the world wars. The argument was taken to a shameful extreme with the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. What has received less attention is the extent to which America’s immigrant fabric can be a foreign-policy advantage, even a threat to other countries. That is what British Prime Minister Palmerston feared, and what President Lincoln stoked, to forestall British recognition of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The result was an important inhibition on Great Britain, then the most powerful state of the international order.

The subject has particular resonance now, when the President of the United States overtly considers immigrants a security threat, seeking to ban immigrants from Muslim countries, dramatically restricting the numbers of refugees admitted from war-torn countries, and arguing for money to be diverted from the Pentagon budget to build a wall “enemy combatants [are] pouring into our country.” This pinched view of immigrant communities solely as a risk fails to capitalize on one of our country’s signal advantages. At the moment of our country’s greatest vulnerability, during the early years of the American Civil War, immigrants in the United States actually held back foreign interference—and thereby helped make America the strongest country in the world.

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