The Ideals and Flaws of Our Immigrant History

Watching the hundreds of thousands of Hispanics who marched for immigrant rights this past week prompts reflection on both the successes and failings of America’s immigrant history.

We are, on the one hand, proud of our legacy as a nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty, one of our most powerful symbols, stands in New York Harbor bearing the words of poet Emma Lazarus:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The "Lady in the Harbor" is a reminder that, for the majority of Americans, our ancestors came here–”many of them without documentation–”dreaming of the unlimited possibilities this new land’s freedom and opportunity would make available. As each new wave of immigrants came, they faced initial hardship, but were ultimately absorbed into the very fabric of America, making the nation richer and more diverse. It is this tradition, not our military strength, that defines our greatness and makes us, as I have written, different than the "old world."

That there is truth to this storyline can’t be denied. But we must not let this mask the reality of the darker side of the American narrative.

To begin with, of course, there are the "original sins" of America: the "ethnic cleansing" and/or genocide committed against our indigenous tribal population; the massive exploitation of millions of African slaves who produced considerable surplus wealth for their white owners and the conquest and forced acquisition of the Spanish-speaking Southwest that made America a continental giant.

To all of this we must add the periodic waves of nativist intolerance and repression that, at times, created additional burdens for various immigrant groups. My own community’s and family’s history is filled with examples.

The greeting at Ellis Island was not always a welcoming one. My mother’s father came with his brother from Lebanon and landed in New York in 1898. Both in their 20’s, they traveled together hoping to start a new life in America. Because it was alleged that my great uncle had an eye disease, he was deemed unfit for entry. He had no recourse. The two brothers were separated and my uncle was turned away. The two never saw or heard from each other again. Many decades later we learned that he sailed on to Brazil and prospered in Sao Paulo. But my grandfather died never knowing what had happened to this brother with whom he had hoped to live in America. The pain of a severed family was hard to bear.

After World War I, the US found itself in the throes of a nativist rage, with Southern European and Asians specifically targeted. It was during this period that a series of anti-Asian laws were passed, some of which excluded and/or severely restricted immigrants from Asian countries, while others placed penalties on those who married Asian non-citizens.

Since Greater Syria was in Asia, Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were victims of this repressive legislation. My father, thus excluded, came to the US as an illegal immigrant to be with the rest of his family. For years he worked with his brothers, but lived with the fear of deportation. (Decades later, he received amnesty and became a citizen.) My aunt, a naturalized US citizen, lost her citizenship when she married my uncle, a legal, but not yet naturalized immigrant from Lebanon.

Shaped by this understanding of our broader history and my own family’s story, I confess a profound sympathy with the current drive for immigrants’ rights. I am not one of those who, having made it into American society, wants to close the door behind me locking others out.

With an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the US and more coming each day, the current debate over immigration policy must both recognize realities and adapt itself to current needs.

To some extent, the flood of "illegals" is a function of our economic needs for more workers and our own troubled and exploitative history with nations south of our border. In a real sense, the problem can in part be seen as "our chickens coming home to roost."

As posed by policy-makers, three options are currently being discussed. On the one side, there are those who call for criminalizing not only the undocumented, but also those who hire them or provide for their social needs. This new nativism is both cruel and unworkable. Not only would it create untold human suffering and economic chaos, but it would cost over $260 billion to implement. The mind reels, I might add, at nightmare scenes of roundups, arrests, and forced deportation of millions of men, women, and children.

There is a proposal by those who are considered "moderates" in this debate to create a "guest worker" program, that would legalize the status of the undocumented, without ever giving them the hope of becoming Americans. This would only bring to the US the same failed system that is now haunting Europe, creating a new class of exploited "guests," without defined rights.

Finally, there are those who recognize that while the current situation is unsustainable, reality must be acknowledged and rationalized into a new framework that both protects the rights of American citizenship while, at the same time, applies the lessons of American history. Borders must be protected and our understaffed and under funded immigration system is broken and must be fixed. But the millions who are here, working and providing for their families, can not be made to pay the price for this problem. To rationalize this process, the pathway to citizenship must be opened. It is the only way to end their exploitation and normalize their situation. At the same time, it is imperative to recognize that this current flood of illegals across our borders is a manifestation of a hemispheric economic problem that requires not a wall but greater investment, economic growth, and the expansion of rights in countries to our south.

Every debate about immigration must recognize both sides of our history–”the promise of the "Lady in the Harbor" that continues to bring more immigrants to America and the realities and mistakes of our past troubles with immigration.

Only when we acknowledge both our ideals and our flaws can we be the great and inspiring country we see ourselves to be.