Rights we cannot grant

By Eric Miller
web posted February 14, 2000

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Almost half of the residents of New York in 1910 were foreign born. Almost as many had at least one foreign-born parent. The number of languages spoken on the streets of Chicago a century ago are as numerous as the tongues spoken in San Francisco today. Not unlike yesterday's cities of steel and railroads, modern high-tech cities are being built by countless different people from almost as many backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures- many still getting used to their new home.

But in the interest of preserving an abstract "quality of life," many wish to close the doors on what has been a wave of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, India and even Eastern Europe.

Has the prosperity of America somehow been thwarted by the record numbers of new arrivals? Even if there were some way to reasonably argue that immigrants- legal or illegal- were draining government services and taking minimum-wage jobs away from natives at a time when unemployment is at record lows and economic expansion continues to stretch into the horizon, how could we seriously justify limits while respecting our tradition?

It's not just that the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty might seem like a demented hoax to the families of the would-be Chinese immigrants who arrived dead in a cargo container ship in Seattle, or the Mexican immigrants who died of dehydration in a hot box car in Texas. But what about the words written so long ago by Thomas Jefferson, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To what extent must we ensure others have these same rights?

When Jefferson wrote those words, who did he think they applied to? The residents of the thirteen colonies? Residents of France and England? The Spanish nations in Central America? Native Americans or African Slaves? People in India or China? Women? Today we must take a step almost as bold and universal as Jefferson proclaim that the government must be used for one of its only moral purposes- protecting individual rights within our borders and doing what we can to promote their protection in other countries.

Like it or not, nations are becoming less important than companies and other willing alliances among people that spread beyond traditional boundaries and aren't dependent or forming on account of birth. Yet, as we cling to the slowly fading notion of a geographic nation, the next logical step is the expansion into a notion that there is no right to control borders- and governments have no right to regulate the flow of people on any other principle than the ownership of private property.

But it's not likely that we will be ready to completely throw away the concept of a geographic nation anytime soon, so we have to resolve our own decision to deny life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and private property to those who show up on our shores and borders. If these rights are truly endowed by a creator, and not the government, then they cannot be denied by the United States Border Patrol or the American electorate.

And it isn't just at America's borders that attempts to preserve "quality of life" are being promoted to the expense of the right of people to move and the right to acquire and use property.
Like the Chicago of a century ago, today San Francisco is perhaps the most rapidly changing city with the greatest numbers of immigrants. Until the technology revolution, the Victorian city was a quirky low-rise affordable city with one of the most moderate climates in the United States. Because of a rapid-influx of newcomers, houses that sold for $20,000 in the 1970s can fetch a half-million today.

Not unlike the use of quotas and other restrictions at the national level to keep out newcomers, a constituency in San Francisco once known for tolerance and acceptance is faced with using the government to protect quality-of-life through rent control and building codes that severely limit the amount of housing that can be built in the city.

The New Mission News, a liberal-progressive newspaper explained that millions of new immigrants were pouring into the city to take advantage of the exploding potential of Internet commerce- and the pressures were making property values go up, pushing out long-established residents paying subsidized rents, making it harder to drive, and encouraging long-established light industrial properties and services such as auto-body shops to be replaced with loft housing and office space.

San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, elected to a second-term as a minority mayor in a city without an ethnic or racial majority, is faced with the task of maintaining the dynamic nature of the city created by newcomers with new found freedom who come as a threat to the white and middle-class liberal residents who seem to find prosperity threatening to their low property values and laid-back lifestyle.

In an interview Brown spoke about what may be emerging as a dangerous ideological majority. "San Franciscans," he said, "believe what attracted them to the city must never be altered. As long as they had their own residence with their rent-control laws and early acquisition (of residential property) they were okay."

Just like the opponents of open-immigration nationally, the objects of mayor Brown's comments suffer from an "I got here first," syndrome. But as the builders of the new-economy know and the "progressives" in San Francisco are beginning to find out, a system that operates only on seniority won't get you very far.

A low-rent neighborhood in San Francisco had been successful at banning construction of live/work lofts some members of the same constituency had once advocated- because they were not being purchased by artists as they had anticipated. they were being purchased by the dot.com crowd.

"The real tragedy of the live-work debate is that the ban on lofts, which the neighborhood requested and got, has backfired," printed The New Mission News, a paper which heralds the slogan "afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted." "Pressure on existing residential tenants has increased and the property owners have simply changed their focus to building office space instead."

Similarly on a national level, opponents of open-immigration seek to preserve their freedom, property-rights, government programs and the right to pursue happiness on any level and with the assistance of government institutions that deny the same rights to others on their behalf.
"We can have our welfare checks, subsidized housing and low-interest loans and union-backed jobs, but don't let anybody else in," Brown told the Independent.

But like the San Franciscans who got to the city before rents were high and property made unaffordable when unprecedented demand combined with restriction of supply, as a resident of the United States we have our rights, and to some extent our property and our freedom by geographic accident of our birth.

Brown however noted that it wasn't until the point when most of the space in San Francisco was occupied that the "so-called progressives became reactionary."

Can there be too many people in the United States? And if so, can we as a culture bear a weight similar to that being experienced in San Francisco when we are faced with denying the rights we enjoy even more often to poor huddled masses and educated job-seekers arriving at the Golden Gate or the Golden Door.

Despite record population levels in cities like San Francisco and nearby San Jose, other cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Philadelphia and even New York are faced with declining population levels. Many metropolitan areas like the Cleveland MSA hold the same numbers of residents they did a half-century ago, only now they take up twice as much space. In essence by restricting the number of arrivals, we are maintaining the affordability of more space for ourselves by a means outside of the market. Newcomers to Cleveland would undoubtedly spawn similar cries and whimpers being heard in San Francisco today.

But cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit which today lack the energy, drive, entrepreneurship and pressure on property values brought by the new arrivals in San Francisco haven't seen the technological and productive benefits created when people, free and diverse, move in and out, stir things up and are able to exchange ideas and energy for their own benefit. Without the pressures being placed on San Francisco it would likely still be the sleepy low-rise wonderland of the 1950s some long for today instead of the head of Silicon Valley, the driving force behind the new economy.

Ironically, the idea that a city or a market can be preserved has only exasperated the effects on housing prices in San Francisco. Housing is only a static quantity because its construction has been restricted- not in the name of preserving architectural gems, but in the affordable, quaint city of yesterday.

But like wealth, housing is not a static quantity. The industrial might created in the last century and the technological wizardry being created today, the skyscrapers in New York and the Victorians in San Francisco were built where they did not exist before.

Jefferson could not foresee and would not recognize American cities today. San Francisco was not even part of the United States and the computer industry several centuries away. And he would marvel at the number of races and cultures that came together in Chicago a three-quarters of a century after his death, let alone the diversity and dynamics of San Francisco in the 21st Century.

Though industrialized cities were not the form of democracy he visioned, he would be assured at seeing the light of liberty was still burning for those lucky enough to live below its flicker. And he might emphasize our responsibility to protect the rights we enjoy for others, regardless of how they may affect our own notion of quality-of-life or affordable property.

"I shall not die without a hope that life and liberty are on a steady advance," Jefferson wrote to John Adams. "Even if the cloud of barbarism and despotism should again obscure the science and liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore the light of liberty to them."
Today it's not so much barbarism and despotism that are infringing on mans rights to life and liberty, but a dangerous notion that the pie is only so big and another's liberties must come at our expense.

As Ayn Rand wrote in the Textbook of Americanism, inalienable means that which we may not take away, suspend, infringe, restrict or violate, and we might add that rights granted by a creator cannot be granted by us by categorizing immigration into terms of "legal" and "illegal."

Today's global economy is only a threat to the sovereignty of nations if it is a threat to the individual rights and freedom of its individual citizens. The global voluntary organizations which may eventually emerge to replace nations present a unique chance to fulfill Jefferson's vision that would have the American spark in 1776 carry freedom around the globe. Until then its even more important we maintain that freedom here by opening our borders to those seeking rights we cannot grant but are too quick to try to deny.

This is Eric Miller's first contribution to Enter Stage Right. He writes frequently on urban issues and is also the web master of http://home.earthlink.net/~urbancentury

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