Commentary: U.S. really is a nation of immigrants

The Rock Hill HeraldFebruary 18, 2013 

There are those who resist immigration and those who embrace it, and finding consensus between those two groups is likely to be the key challenge in reforming our national immigration policy.

Dividing large numbers of people into two groups can be both foolish and simplistic. But in this case, it might prove useful, offering a little insight into what makes this issue so contentious.

The division over immigration seems to reflect two different world views – with, of course, an assortment deviations and overlaps, but also wide philosophical disparities. On the one hand, we have Americans who are fiercely devoted to what they see as an America under siege, a traditional America consisting largely of communities founded by and populated with Protestants of northern European ancestry with roots in this country that go back a century or more.

Immigrants are viewed as both a threat to undermine the indigenous labor force and corrupt the culture. They don’t share our common traditions, our ideals or, oftentimes, even our language.

These Americans see immigrants as intruders who don’t really want to assimilate but rather to impose their customs and conventions on their American neighbors. These Americans, who often have not visited other countries, view immigrants as takers, who want to enjoy the social safety net without contributing to keep it strong.

Many who oppose immigration reform believe the only fair and lasting solution is to deport those who sneaked into this country and then seal the borders.

On the other hand, we have Americans who are steeped in the ideal of a “nation of immigrants” strengthened and enriched by the melding of so many different cultures, races, languages and customs. These Americans, who often have traveled abroad, think of themselves not just as Americans but also as internationalists, citizens of the world.

These Americans are more likely to hire immigrants to watch over their children than worry about losing their jobs to one. They appreciate the diversity that results from the influx of people from different parts of the world, and take pride in the fact that America is one of the few places in the world where immigrants truly can embrace the ideals of their adopted country and become “real Americans.”

Those who favor immigration reform take borders less seriously than their anti-immigration counterparts. Why get all worked up because people from other nations want to come here and enjoy the freedoms and opportunities we do?

These Americans see a long history of immigrants succeeding, becoming entrepreneurs, contributing to the common good, making America stronger. They acknowledge the mistakes we made as a nation – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment – but also see America as unique in the world in welcoming immigrants and making real the promise etched on the Statue of Liberty.

Those two groups of Americans are defined in broad strokes. To some extent, the representations are stereotypes. And many Americans don’t fall squarely into one category or the other.

And there is naivete on the part of both groups. Those who view immigrants exclusively as Hispanic day laborers probably haven’t been treated by an Indian-American heart surgeon or cheered a college football team coached by a Chinese-American.

The idealists who welcome all immigrants with open arms probably haven’t had a truckload of migrant workers camped on their property, led by a professional, armed people smuggler. They probably haven’t been caught in the crossfire of a gang war.

But overall, statistics tend to bear out the rosier picture of immigration. We really are a nation of immigrants, and we are stronger because of it.

And despite the occasional misguided efforts to exclude certain categories of immigrants, America has been accepting of the notion that, if people from other countries want to come here, become one of us and revere our democratic way of life, then they are welcome. There’s still plenty of room.

And, whatever we may believe about immigration, in the end, demographics will rule. The immigrant population is growing, and more of them are voting. Soon, America no longer will be run exclusively by old white men.

Ready or not, change is coming.

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