We are a nation of immigrants, and we will always be a nation of immigrants. We need to re-examine our immigration policies to provide care and respect for those who come here. America, at its best, is a welcoming community, and we need to live up to our image, instead of tarnishing it.
Through stories about the lives of strangers, and about the lives of my own family members, I was taught from an early age about the often desperate plight of the immigrant and the blazing hope that America held out to them. The immigrant story of today contains no less richness, variety, and contribution than it did a hundred or two hundred years ago.
Immigrants are not our enemies. I don’t know any progressive who is arguing for open borders, but we are arguing for open hearts. This is so important to remember today as immigrants are often viciously scapegoated. Scapegoating immigrants, particularly Mexicans and Central Americans, is a deliberate dehumanization technique. Dehumanizing others has always been the required first step leading toward history’s collective atrocities. This is not the first time dehumanization has reared its head in our nation, and we must stand up against it now as other generations stood up against it in their time.
The deliberate attempt by some of our leaders to make Americans fear something so basic to our greatness in the name of our greatness will one day be seen as a dark, aberrational chapter in our nation’s history. Those who scapegoat immigrants, like all demagogues throughout history, are demonizing others to increase their own power. The hardening of the American heart is far more dangerous than the softening of our borders.
When someone says, “Yes, but what would you do about the immigration crisis?” remember this:
Although there are certainly reasonable changes that need to be made in our immigration policies, the idea that we have a crisis is simply a canard. Calling our border situation a crisis is simply a means of distracting Americans from seeing who and what is really leeching our resources, who and what is really undercutting our power, and who and what is really stealing our democracy.
In fact, over the last decade, undocumented immigration has been going down. There are no hordes of immigrants “infesting” us. And while no one wants violent criminals in our country, the current anti-immigrant fervor has little or nothing to do with such matters. The actual rate of criminality among immigrants—even the undocumented—is lower, not higher, than the rate of criminality among our non-immigrant citizens. Both documented and undocumented immigrants are 46% less likely than native born U.S. citizens to commit a crime or be incarcerated.
And the rate of their contributions, in fields ranging from the arts to science to academia, are among the highest of any subpopulation, whether measured culturally, academically, or economically. Children born of immigrants are more more likely to go to college and get a degree and less likely to live in poverty. In fact, studies have shown that as recently as 2016, immigrants contributed around $2 trillion to our GDP. And rather than competing with U.S. workers, research has shown their skills tend to compliment them.
Undocumented immigrants also contribute to Medicare and Social Security -- without reaping many of its benefits. As recently as 2010, research shows undocumented immigrants paid $13 billion into Social Security but only received $1 billion in services. And they paid over $35 billion more into Medicare than they withdrew between 2000 and 2011. They also pay over $11 billion a year in state and local taxes.
The plight of the modern refugee—the vast majority of whom are asylum-seekers—is no different now than it ever was. What has changed is how anti-immigrant fervor has been weaponized, taking a wrecking ball to something previously considered a point of pride for our country. Today, when the world has a greater refugee crisis than at any time since World War II — with over 60 million people displaced or homeless, often as a result of tragedies at least indirectly influenced by U.S. foreign policy — America is closing its heart.
Right now, people seeking asylum on the southern border of the United States are being scapegoated as criminals, their children deceitfully taken from their arms with no plan as to how they will be returned. These tactics flagrantly violate American law, which mandates that most anyone who sets foot in the United States has full constitutional protection here. These asylum-seekers have been grossly denied fair protection. They are being prosecuted instead of welcomed, and their efforts to escape oppression are being met by new forms of oppression - by us.
While it’s legitimate to discuss conservative versus liberal options regarding how we help a refugee fleeing humanitarian horrors, it should never be a question of whether we do something or nothing.
A question central to our current immigration drama is this: who do we think America belongs to? How ironic that a people who stole this continent from Native Americans who had lived here for thousands of years before we arrived, now turn around and claim some God-given right to ownership.
Seeking asylum in America is not a scam; it is a statutory right. And immigrating to America is not a crime. The modern immigrant is chasing the same dream of a better life that lured the ancestors of every American who isn’t descended from either slaves or Native Americans. Even the language many tend to use in describing undocumented immigrants - calling them “illegal,” or “aliens," — is a means of dehumanizing the very people this nation was designed to cherish.
Another canard is that building a wall across our entire southern border is needed. In fact, unauthorized immigrants are increasingly entering the United States perfectly legally, then simply overstaying visas. No increase in border security will impact this most common route into our nation. Yes, we can invest in smart border security when it’s actually needed, while also looking at underlying causes of the displacement of so many people south of our border, including our long failed war on drugs, which has created rampant crime and violence among our neighbors. A wall is expensive, impractical, and unlikely to address any of the real challenges we face.
When people say we must protect ourselves and our borders, we must ask ourselves what they are really afraid of. There is a reason to defend our borders, but it has little to do with refugees. It has to do with transnational criminal enterprises, who bring drugs and people (usually women and children) to be trafficked and sold in this country, and who move massive amounts of money and guns out of the US. Some legitimately fear that even a nuclear weapon could be smuggled in by these gangs or cartels. These are legitimate fears. They must be fought - with smarts - by smart people using the best of modern technology. The evil comes by airplane, by ship, by submarine. If it comes through the southern border, it usually comes in trucks through normal gates that will be built into any wall. We need not fear the refugee or the bright, well-educated professionals with their dreams and energy. We do need to protect ourselves against the really bad guys.
It is important that we have a president who distinguishes between threats to the United States that are real, and those that are not.
I support legislative reforms that include a full path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who do not have serious criminal background issues. I would also work to reduce the cost of naturalization and increase resources to help people navigate that process more easily.
With all the external issues that need to be addressed, immigration remains an issue where the deepest problem lies within our hearts. When my grandparents came to America from Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th Centuries, they not only brought to this country their hopes and dreams, but also felt appreciated for doing so. This made them want to succeed, and want to assimilate in ways that were appropriate. They didn’t wish to confine themselves to their own ethnic silo, because they felt welcomed by the culture at large.
Today, too many immigrants come to America and are not made to feel welcome. This increases their fear, which leads them to behave in ways that then increases ours. Walls in our hearts are the most dangerous walls, and that is where we must bring them down. Next time you’re at an immigrant-owned place of business, think of asking the owner where he or she came from…learn their story…bring them into your heart. That is how we will change America, not only through policy, but also through love.