The rise of right-wing extremist sentiments in the United States is a highly disturbing development, and the advocacy of extremist themes by some prominent mainstream conservatives makes one wonder if a dangerous element has crept into America’s political arena. Many conservatives now identify Latino immigrants as a major cause of our social and economic problems and several states, such as Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, which normally hold the Constitution to be sacrosanct, have taken legislative actions to preempt the federal government from its constitutional role of regulating immigration and, ultimately, to seek the deportation of U.S. residents who entered the country illegally.
In 1787 the framers of the U.S. Constitution, aside from setting up a system of self-governance, already had immigration and territorial expansion in mind. Benjamin Franklin well knew the value of immigrants and cautioned the members of the Constitutional Convention not to write the Constitution so as to appear to favor the wealthy classes and thereby discourage the immigration of workers, which the new nation badly needed.
In 1776, at the very instant that America was conceived, Thomas Jefferson, in citing the reasons for the separation from Great Britain, wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “He (the King) has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners … ”. The framers also provided for the admission of new states, first thinking of securing access to the Mississippi River; but that was soon not enough. Eventually, under the guise of Manifest Destiny, reaching the Pacific Ocean (at the expense of Native Americans and Mexicans) became the final territorial objective—but only temporarily.
There is very little room for anyone to argue against the need for immigration reform in the United States. It is sorely needed. But to blame illegal immigrants for the problems that face the nation is a gross deviation from rationality. Illegal immigrants do not run Wall Street, banks, or the real estate industry and neither are they responsible for the fluctuations (crashes/ recessions) of the American free-enterprise system. They didn’t start the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan, although they have willingly spilled their blood on foreign lands in defense of American interests. Since the birth of our nation, foreign-born residents such as Alexander Hamilton and Irving Berlin (admittedly outstanding examples) stand as testimony to what immigrants can contribute to America. The assimilation of diverse racial groups has always been a key ingredient in the making of America’s greatness.
As to the economic burden that illegal immigrants create, I haven’t seen any store signs that inform immigrants that they are exempt from paying sales taxes. No one has advised them that they need not pay utility, gasoline, property, or state or federal income taxes. The expulsion of illegal immigrants, estimated at 12 million or more, a horrifying thought in itself, would surely have economic consequences that would worsen, not lessen, our current plight. Most relevant to the issue, America, with the exception of Native Americans, is a country of immigrants. To believe that all previous waves of immigrants came to America fully documented (Ellis Island did not become operational until 1890) is a great misconception. Many of the immigrants who were processed at Ellis Island did not have documentation of any kind and were admitted to the U.S. simply by the on-the-spot decisions of immigration officials.
The current insistence on legality did not seem to bother the 19th century waves of land-hungry northern European immigrants and their descendants, who swept across the American plains, breaking legally binding Native American/U.S. Government treaties. And when they could be pushed nowhere else, Native Americans were forced into reservations and their children into the infamous boarding schools.
How legal were the Anglo immigrants who settled in Texas, in violation of Mexican law, with the avowed intention of wresting the territory from Mexico? How legal was the forced ceding by Mexico to the U.S. of what is today most of the Southwest U.S.? The singer-actor Willie Nelson put it succinctly in one of his movie roles, “Most people call it stealing. We call it Manifest Destiny.”
Many Americans, severely impacted by economic hardships, are ready to believe that the influx of any race of people who are physically different, have different customs and speak a different language, may be the cause of America’s economic plight. Since the English settlements in the eastern U.S. seaboard, every new immigrant group has been feared and rejected by immigrants who came to America before them. No less an American patrician than the newly married Franklin D. Roosevelt advised his wife, Eleanor, who was looking for a maid, to hire a “mick,” because they were considered the best housekeepers. The Irish, of course, have gone from common laborers to the White House, the ultimate in assimilation. Which prompts the question: Why have immigrants from Northern Europe seemingly become Americans overnight while others remain foreigners forever?
The fear of immigrants is really the fear of social discomfort and, most importantly, of losing political and economic power. Instead of seeking to live harmoniously with each other and to fully utilize the human resources we have been dealt, there are individuals and groups in the United States, especially political candidates, who have seized on the illegal immigration issue as a means of exploiting the fears, and gaining the vote, of a disgruntled and depressed electorate, by suggesting that the mass exportation of illegal immigrants (Latinos) is the solution to our problems. To them, amnesty is an evil that comes with the dissolution of American values, therefore any program or legislation that makes possible the naturalization of illegal immigrants must be resisted at all costs. In some cases, these demagogues are calling for American-born children of illegal immigrants to be denied citizenship. Never mind the Constitution which grants unqualified citizenship to all native-born persons.
Man is a migratory animal and no human power has been able to stop the great migrations that have occurred since the beginning of the human era. The movements of people from Africa to the Middle East, to Europe and to Asia, and from there to the Americas were no more preventable than the massive human migrations from the Old to the New World after 1492. Though the weak U.S. economy has slowed the northward movement of people from Latin America, there is no legislation, no militia or fence, that will stop these migrations altogether.
Being different does not make a person physically or intellectually inferior. That difference is not to be feared, but embraced. Like the grafting of plants, the history of humans has been a constant mixing of one group with another. In America, it has been the constant “grafting” of people from all over the world, who in time, become a permanent part of the American stock and, in the process, however difficult and inconsistent, produce a stronger, more vibrant America.