To say that immigration is “good for America” should arouse patriotic fervor but it doesn’t. Why?
To most, immigration is not about us. It’s about our intrepid immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who contributed their brains, brawn and bravery to build America almost 200 years ago. Their sacrifices and contributions shaped the nation; however, that no longer seems urgent or instructive.
But it should matter. Rational answers to questions raised in the American psyche by immigration are important to current and future generations and deserve the benefit of serious experiential learning.
Immigration is still shaping the American landscape and it is important to the nation in both a symbolic and practical way. Symbolically, it continues to be America’s major advantage over other countries. Disproportionate shares of the world’s ambitious people are fighting for a chance to realize their entrepreneurial ambitions in the United States.
Practically, as in the past, immigration is forging new levels of diversity throughout America. It is revitalizing and redefining long cherished norms of national and community identity.
Regrettably, the current Administration seeks to capitalize on the worry many Americans have about where immigration is taking the nation. The president has no qualms about demonizing and criminalizing immigration for his own gratification or to meet his party’s political ends. That many Americans harbor a deep-rooted concern about immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who look, behave and believe differently is not abnormal.
The impulse is called “xenophobia” and it is quite normal. What is abnormal is for our leaders to use our impulse toward fear of foreigners to pit us against one another simply to achieve their immigration ends. The current immigration crisis being hawked by the Administration is cooked up, not supported by the facts and needs to be relegated to the trash heap of fake news.
The principal resistance to today’s immigration is cultural. It is not fueled by the economy or national security concerns. The strain of immigration on the nation’s social fabric may be too great for some to bear. For each group of immigrants who start new businesses and work around the clock to assimilate and make their businesses flourish, there are groups of Hispanics who aren’t learning English fast enough, Haitians still practicing voodoo, Iranians preaching Shi’ite fundamentalism or more generally, immigrants that seem to be diluting the sense of “Americanness” by not assimilating quickly enough. This too is normal. Assimilation is a plant of slow growth.
China and India are now the number 1 and number 2 countries of today’s immigrant population. Until recently, at least half of all immigrants were from Spanish-dominant countries. This was a large number of immigrants from one non-English language group but it’s not unusual. Germans, who made up a third of the immigrant population in the mid-nineteenth century worried us, as they struggled to get through the assimilation process. They were followed by the Italians, Poles and Eastern Europeans.
These facts are instructive to concerned citizens because they provide evidence that those currently going through assimilation are not behaving any differently than previous immigrants. According to most studies, first generation immigrants are not comfortable in English. The assimilation process begins in earnest with their American-born children.
Without a doubt, America has faced serious immigration challenges. Past immigration disruptions were more severe because, in those days, immigrants seemed more foreign and previous immigration arrivals were greater. Yet, we have emerged as the strongest, most dynamic and most open society in the world. Instead of being weakened and overcome, the nation has been enriched and made stronger by immigration.
If a lot of new people immigrate here with a lot of new ideas, customs and languages, America will look and feel different. So what? It might make sense to protect “recognizable” national characteristics in a society where national identity is fundamentally associated with a single religion or language or set of folk ways. That isn’t the case here. Because we are a nation of immigrants, such things are much less important in defining our national identity. Our identity is an amalgam.
If I were to randomly select a group of 100 Americans and ask you to pick out the Germans, Poles, Irish, Italian or Spanish simply by observing the group, you would be hard pressed to do so. We have become an undifferentiated mass of immigrants known as Americans. The common denominator for each of us is that we are Americans. The diversity that the cultural legacy each of us brings to the mix of “Americanness” is what sets us apart and makes us the wonder of the world.
Justo Gonzalez, the youngest person to be awarded a Ph.D. in historical theology at Yale tells us: “Cultures and societies, like living organisms, require food from outside in order to grow and survive. And, like every living organism, the moment they cease changing, they begin to die.” America should feel pride in the new blood immigration brings to our society, rather than being resentful of it.