We Once Were Strangers

A mural in Pilsen, a Hispanic neighborhood Chicago. Source: Pinterest

Thoughts on the Discussion about America’s Immigration System

My father came to the United States from Peru in 1992. Five years before I was born, he left his native country for the western suburbs of Chicago, in search of the chance to become a physician in America, leaving the violence, limited opportunity, and stark societal divisions of his homeland. My mother’s great-grandfather fled Ukraine to escape the persecution he faced for being Jewish. I, like the vast majority of Americans, can trace my roots to foreign soil. Like many others, I have a family history reflecting the idea of the American “melting pot.” Yet, tragically, many have forgotten their pasts, and xenophobic rhetoric now surprisingly dominates American discourse on immigration.

By Sebastián Torero

Many a politician now bemoans the state of the American immigration system. For the past few years, we have been bombarded with the message that our system is broken, and something needs to change. But what is broken, and the steps that need to be taken, are different to different people. There are two dominant ways in which the problems with America’s immigration system are understood. One assessment is that weak border security and weak leadership have led to a massive influx of illegal aliens, who drain the economy and flood the work force with cheap labor that takes jobs from “true” Americans. The solution offered from this view is deportation and increased border control efforts. Those on the other side of the issue concur that the border needs to be made more secure, but offer a different solution; a way to allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States to become citizens, provided they go to the back of the line, learn English, pay taxes, etc.

This second view was predicted to become the dominant opinion in American politics. In particular, it was anticipated that the Republican party would accept this view and try to moderate its stance on immigration in order to court the Latino vote. Instead, an eccentric, shameless real estate mogul has hijacked the national conversation, and now we hear not about inclusion, but about walls and mass deportation. The demagoguery of Donald Trump often crosses the line between bombastic emotional appeal and blatant racism, and it is fueled by a gross misunderstanding of our current issue with undocumented immigrants, mainly that 48% are not Mexican. He has even spoken out against taking Syrian refugees, saying if he were to become president, the few that have come to the United States would be forced to leave. Donald Trump’s current popularity, however (hopefully) short-lived, is something Americans should not take lightly A segment of the population, perhaps not a major one, but a notable one, has forgotten their past.

The ironic flag of the Know-Nothing party. Source: Huffington Post

The ironic flag of the Know-Nothing party. Source: Huffington Post

There are two specific components of American culture which concern immigration and are part of the bedrock of our national identity. The first is that we are a country of immigrants; all Americans who are not direct descendants of Native Americans can trace their heritage back to foreign soil. The second is that America is a nation which accepts those in need of a better future, and not only that, but our ideal is to be a country which can provide this better future for all who are willing to work hard for it. These principles, despite being pillars of the American dream, have been problematic for some throughout history. In the mid-19th century, massive waves of immigrants came to American shores. These immigrants were mainly Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern European, and there was an intense reaction against their arrival. The nativist Know-Nothing party was created in response to this wave of immigrants, and even though the United States was less than a century old, those who prescribed to the Know-Nothing’s xenophobic ideals had forgotten that they, too, had once been strangers.

Today, we are faced again with 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows. 11 million people who live among us, and due to the situation of their legality, or lack thereof, present a major issue to the American government, the American welfare system, and to the morality of our country. Many undocumented immigrants still receive welfare without paying taxes, creating a substantial financial burden. The solution presented by Donald Trump, the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, is neither feasible, moral, nor appropriate. The fear of the corruption of American culture by immigrants needs to be vanquished. The national conversation needs to change. We need to remember that we all were once foreigners, that once we too were strangers, that we all came from distant lands. We do not need to romanticize or idealize immigrants. These 11 million are not perfect, but neither are we. These 11 million may come from other countries, may speak different languages, may look different, may have different cultures, but these distinctions are of no matter. America has never been a homogenous society; we are built on different languages, looks, and cultures. Now is not the time to harbor an “us” and “them” mentality; undocumented immigrants are not “other.” They are humans that, once welcomed, can become total members of our society and contribute fully, as many of them wish to do. They are not a threat to American identity, because American identity is that of the immigrant, of the foreigner, of the stranger. In order to properly deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants, we must look to ourselves, to our history, and remember that our nation is at its best when we welcome those who wish to come to our country in search of a better life.

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