Sundin column: The moral dilemma posed by immigration |

Sundin column: The moral dilemma posed by immigration

Dilemma is defined in the dictionary as “a choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives.” With Christmas approaching, we are confronted with the moral dilemma of immigration: the needs of humanity versus concern about its effects on the future of our country; exclusiveness vs. humanitarianism; protectionism vs. compassion.

On the one hand, there is the desire to preserve the status quo. There is real and justified concern about the impact of admitting large numbers of people into our already overcrowded cities, exacerbating gridlocked traffic and further driving up land and housing costs beyond what growing numbers of people can afford. There are also concerns about the social, cultural, economic, political and environmental effects of admitting large numbers of immigrants.

On the other hand, there are crying reasons for sympathy for people (especially the children) who are desperately trying to escape countries where law and order and economies have collapsed, and are fleeing for their lives due to ethnic or religious strife or because of gangs threatening to take “your money or your life,” or your children. There is also a need in our country to meet the growing demand for low-cost unskilled labor which immigrants have historically filled as a stepping stone to a better life.

We need to recall that except for the surviving descendents of Native Americans, we are all immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The Native Americans started a long tradition of those already here not welcoming newcomers.

Until 1820 most of the immigrants were English or Scottish, but from 1820 to 1880 the influx of millions of Irish (mostly Catholic) and Germans (largely Catholic) aroused a fear that the United States would be overwhelmed by Catholics and be controlled by the Pope. Many were also concerned that these immigrants would displace Americans from their jobs. But they were welcomed with open arms by corporate interests to fill the labor needs of rapidly expanding railroads and the mining, steel, textile and garment industries.

In the next several decades, they were followed by millions of immigrants from Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s several groups formed to restrict immigration, including the Immigration Restriction League to oppose Irish and German Catholic immigration and the “Nativists” (“old-stock” Americans) who feared negative effects from immigrants.

In the 1860s, laborers from China were imported into California to blast a tunnel through the granite Sierra Mountain Range (at a rate of a few feet per day) for the Transcontinental Railroad because they were skilled in working with nitroglycerine, were cheap and were expendable. In 1882 (when dynamite had taken the place of nitroglycerine) there was no longer a need for their skill, and Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibiting importing Chinese laborers — which was in effect until it was repealed in 1945.

In 1939, the SS St. Louis carrying about 900 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany sought admission to the United States after being denied asylum in Cuba and Canada. Responding to anti-Semitic sentiment in the U.S., our government also rejected their appeal, forcing the ship to return to Germany and the likelihood of their extermination. But after the end of World War II the U.S. passed the Displaced Persons Act granting several hundred thousand refugees from Europe (many of whom were Jewish) admission into our country. And following Fidel Castro’s taking over Cuba in 1959, the U.S. admitted several hundred thousand Cuban refugees.

Today, immigration of refugees fleeing their homelands has become a worldwide problem. For the United States, the primary concern is the large numbers of people fleeing poverty and the ruthless gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. We also need to be on guard to protect our borders from Muslim terrorists. They are easy to differentiate from Hispanics, and because they are primarily from the Middle East there is an ocean separating us from their countries of origin. Hopefully, we have learned our lesson from the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Europe (primarily Italy, Greece, Germany and Sweden) is being invaded by large numbers of refugees fleeing the internecine warfare between Shiites and Sunnis which is consuming their homelands, and it is difficult to distinguish between Muslim refugees and Muslim terrorists.

How the United States should respond to this dilemma between concern for the plight of refugees and concern for their impact on our country is something that all of us should weigh in our hearts and minds.

Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. “As I See It” appears monthly in the Post Independent and at Contact him at

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