Personal and Historic Perspective on Immigration

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Russell E. Saltzman, pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri penned an article yesterday in First Things that was incredibly eye opening. One Thousand Five-Hundred or So Uninformed Words on U.S. Immigration Policy reminds us of the central misunderstanding in the immigration debate: immigrants are people. Not statistics, not a class, not a political football, nor are they a homogeneous class of invading unskilled laborers all looking to “take our jobs”. They are individual people with complicated narratives that involve both pull and push factors. They are fleeing nightmares and chasing dreams. They bring gifts and skills we need while also presenting a challenge to the communities that welcome them. If we can learn to adapt to their arrival and shape policy that respects their humanity, we will all benefit from the shared bounty.

What I find moving in these stories is the persistence, the sheer stubborn doggedness, and the sometimes willing embrace of danger by these folks in getting to America. […] Forced to it I would do the same for my family, my children, leave a troubled homeland with limited prospects and few opportunities and attempt to forge something a little better. These exactly are the sort of people we need.

These “uninformed” words remind us that in all our macro-level policy discussions we can never forget the essential humanity of each and every migrant. Once we see in them the humanity that binds us all we will understand that they are the figurative reincarnation of our ancestors, and that our fears are the return of old ghosts that never seem to find rest in our national narrative. And they are not the last wave of immigrants that will turn to this land for solace and freedom.

The New York Times recently ran an editorial by Lawrence Downes exploring the 100 year anniversary of the Dillingham Commission, a commission led by Senator William Dillingham, that “went to unheard-of effort and expense to peer deep into the bubbling melting pot to find out, just what is being melted.” The article is also worth reading carefully as it reminds us of the cycles of immigration in this country. History can be a powerful tool, applyling the past to the present, and giving us a perspective that rises above the sound bites and talking points of the controversy-based news cycle. As we look back we can see progress, but we can also see the forces of isolation and xenophobia pushing back, as they will always do:

It’s hard not to feel some gratitude when reading the Dillingham reports. Whatever else our government does wrong, at least it no longer says of Africans: “They are alike in inhabiting hot countries and in belonging to the lowest division of mankind from an evolutionary standpoint.” But other passages prompt the chill of recognition. Dillingham’s spirit lives on today in Congress and the states, in lawmakers who rail against immigrants as a class of criminals, an invading army spreading disease and social ruin. Who brandish unlawful status as proof of immigrants’ moral deficiency rather than the bankruptcy of our laws. Who condemn “illegals” but refuse to let anyone become legal. And who forget what generations of assimilation and intermarriage have shown: that today’s scary aliens invariably have American grandchildren who know little and care less about the old country.

It’s no longer acceptable to mention race, but fretting about newcomers’ education, poverty and assimilability is an effective substitute. After 100 years, we’re a better country, but still frightened by old shadows.

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