Immigration Attitudes – What Have We Become?
I can think of no undertaking more American than immigration. All of us, save those who can trace their ancestry back to aboriginal beginnings (and even those people came from somewhere else, originally), are here as a result of someone in their familial past immigrating to this country. In some cases, those ancestors were brought here as enslaved persons, which, of course, is not the same thing. But that history notwithstanding, we all have the blood of immigrant stock coursing through our veins.
So at what point in our national timeline, do we establish the cutoff between us as true Americans, and everyone else? How many generations back must we go, before we can say, “We were here first,” and therefore have the right to hold up our hands and forbid others the opportunity to find their own place in the American landscape?
Yes, I understand that the citizens of any democratically governed society have the legal right to determine who else may become a citizen. We have laws governing who may enter, who may stay and who will be entitled to the status of citizenship. That’s as it should be, to be sure.
But once we have attained citizenship, either by being born on American soil or by undergoing the process of naturalization, do we then have the right to close the door? Legally, yes, of course. But don’t we have an ethical responsibility to look out for our neighbors around the globe? Some of them live in dire, horrifying circumstances, alien to our sense of civilized norms.
Can we really close our eyes to such conditions and turn our backs on the pleas of mothers and fathers, whose children are suffering from malnourishment, educational neglect or lack of basic medical care. Families who are living day to day with the threat of torture and death?
Are these people so different from us? Except for the accident of when and where they were born, they feel what we feel, love as we do, and desire the best for their families. There really isn’t much difference.
What has always distinguished America from other countries around the world is our willingness to take in those who come seeking refuge and allowing them to find their way to a life that is better than what they had. Of course that is not always easily accomplished. Group after group has endured the savagery of prejudice and bigotry, displayed by some of those, already settled in the promised land. Only with the passing of generations have they managed to meld into the larger population, their cultural strengths being allowed to emerge and flourish, as a valuable part of the American culture.
Again, I understand that we cannot open the country to everyone who wants to make their home here – we must ensure that the regulations governing immigration are reasonable and strictly followed. But our laws and how we enforce them, reflect on who we are. They say a lot about our national character. Just as our treatment of the weakest and most vulnerable among us, exposes our innermost intentions as a society.
And lately, we look to be fearful, greedy and without empathy. That was before the news of the past week, shined a light on the horrific policy being enforced on our southern border. Now we look monstrous.
Immigration officials have been forcibly removing children, as young as infants, from their parents. No crimes had been committed. These foreign nationals are seeking sanctuary, many of them, because they believed in America. They believed their children would be safe here. Instead, they walked into the most heinous of possible experiences, being separated from their kids, with no way of communicating with them, no way of knowing what is happening to them, no way to know if they are safe. In some cases, these terrified parents were told their children were being taken to be washed, only to have them disappear.
Of course, the image is familiar, still terrifying eighty years later.
I have to wonder what our border guards tell themselves, as they face these strangers, pull their children out of their arms, the only security they have left in the world. Terrifying for the kids, unspeakably soul-crushing for the parents. Are they just following orders? Do they really want to be sending the message to the world’s at-risk families, that if they try to enter our land, we will brutalize their family?
Is this who we are now? Are we really so under-resourced that we can’t find a way to make room in this vast country? Will we run out of food or shelter? Do we really believe that our livelihoods will be threatened by these immigrants? Are they all so dangerous?
So who are we? What is our true nature?
I am confident that we are who we believe we are, underneath the fear and irrational misunderstandings. We are decent, well-intentioned, caring human beings, with a strong sense of social justice. That is what we grew up on, what we’ve seen and heard about, over and over again. And regardless of our political leanings, we know when another human being is injured, and we don’t just walk by. That’s not who we are. In those moments when disaster throws us together, tying our survival into a collective knot, forcing our better selves to the surface, we behave with the clarity and selflessness that exposes the people we actually are. The Americans we believe in. At bottom, good people.
I urge us all, as those good people, to come together now, and reassert the positive nature of our national soul and reclaim our bearings. We cannot allow the present tide of exclusionary thinking overtake our sense of right and wrong. That’s not who we are.