I wince at the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed ashore on a Turkish beach one year ago. Or of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, bloodied and dusty after surviving a bombing in Aleppo. I think of my own one-year-old son—he wears little Velcro shoes like Alan’s and has mop-like hair like Omran’s—and my heart breaks.

Then I begin to contemplate the terror that forces people to flee, and I am struck by a sense of fear, resolved not to let such violence reach my country—and my child.

A Conflicted Country

The United States, as a nation, has likewise been driven variously by both compassion and fear in its response to immigrants. There have always been voices insisting that the United States was a nation of immigrants ready to welcome others, even while others believed that the arrival of new immigrants was a menace threatening the country—with the center of public sentiment vacillating between these two competing narratives. These debates go back to the colonial era: Benjamin Franklin once fretted that the German immigrants arriving in Pennsylvania would “never adopt our [British] Language and Customs” and would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us rather than our Anglifying them.” His concerns about cultural assimilation have been echoed, by at least some element of the population, in regard to just about every subsequent wave of immigrants.

Yet there have always been others who welcomed newcomers: George Washington, for example, told a crowd of early Irish immigrants that the newly independent United States was “open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the distressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”

A century ...