Barriers and US society - church and border

My grandfather was a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1867 and I have before me, as I write, his Manual of Rules, with ''Benj. F. Lang'' embossed in gold on the cover. He represented the town of Lee and boarded at the American House while at Concord. Andrew Jackson was President but was in some danger of impeachment.

Lang's legislative manual reprints the state and national constitutions, right down to the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, abolishing slavery. The manual carefully hyphenates New-Hampshire throughout. According to the 1860 census the country has 31 million people. What surprises me is Rule 29 of the Senate Constitution, which lists qualifications for membership. It says: ''Provided, nevertheless, That no person shall be capable of being elected a Senator who is not of the Protestant religion. . . .'' The same religious qualification affects the governor, too, who is debarred from service ''unless he shall be of the Protestant religion'' (Page 37, Article 42).

Religious qualifications are, of course, long since gone and forgotten. To be reminded of them is a shock, and it brings back all sorts of dim echoes of Puritanism, Old World battles for mastery, and the settling of a continent. We still have language and ethnicity problems, though, but of a different sort. For two years the 98th Congress has been arguing amendments to the basic immigration law and has been unable to reach agreement. Watching the ebb and flow of sentiment in Washington, I have an impression that this may be a milestone, that this is a last attempt to control by one sort of approach.

America has never quite known how to deal with immigrants. The Statue of Liberty welcomes them. But now there is also unemployment. The world is filling up. There is talk about comparative population growth in nearly every quarter of the globe. The United States is the wealthiest nation and we spend trillions in armaments to protect against foreign attack. But a quiet invasion of illegal immigrants is going on, and the nation knows about it. Battleships may keep off hostile submarines, but the illegal alien slips quietly over the border.

Millions of aliens are now in the country illegally. Border controls are no match for the influx. A feature is that the public does not seem to care very much. A new proposal has been introduced in Congress to facilitate law-keeping, making the employer responsible if he hires illegals. The Senate passed immigration-reform legislation of this sort by large margins in 1982 and '83. But the House failed to act and ultimately passed a different version by only a 5-vote margin, 216 to 211. The issue has stalemated in this session of Congress. The status of millions of aliens is at stake. It now may be years before the matter comes up again. Meanwhile, millions of would-be immigrants wait on the southern border.

The rate of world population growth has diminished slightly in 10 years but is still high.

When my grandfather considered the matter in 1867 (if he thought about it at all), the emotional issue was religion. The problem has deepened and broadened since then but now is in a new form - hunger and survivability.

America cannot seem to decide what to do. A great many immigrants are now coming in from Asia. Last year there were 282,000 from Asia, or about half of those entering legitimately. From 1924 to 1965 America had a system of quotas based on ''national origin'' frankly intended to ''preserve the ethnic and racial composition of the United States.'' Quotas were repealed in 1965 and the Asiatic inflow has grown.

It is uncertain whether exact figures on legal immigration mean very much. Immigration Commissioner Leonard Chapman in 1976 estimated that the immigrants illegally in the United States ranged between 6 million and 10 million, and might be as high as 12 million. There the matter rests. The problem has been growing for a century and we are still reluctant to face it.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.