In the red-hot debate over immigration, myth too often takes the place of truth. It is time to step back, take a deep breath and reflect before we react.
The truth is often distorted in ways that feed our divisions. For example, many contrast this generation of immigrants with the Europeans who came at the beginning of the last century. That generation, we are told, came legally, whereas this generation is coming illegally. That generation learned the language, whereas this one is writing the national anthem in Spanish.
But as Michael Powell of the Washington Post reports, this is mostly nonsense. Until 1918, the United States didn't even require passports -- the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals merely had to provide their identity and find a friend to vouch for them. Customs officials tried to weed out the lunatic or those infected with disease or "anarchism." The Mexican-U.S. border was then unguarded and crossed freely. When finally passed, immigrant quotas exempted northern Europeans and Mexicans.
And all the same fears that exist now existed then. There was a huge backlash against German, Irish, and Italian immigrants. White Protestant reformers warned that they weren't learning English, that they were drunks, dissolute, lazy. Commentators warned of the "mongrelization" of the "white race." Conservatives warned that immigrants were importing European class warfare into America.
All those fears turned out to be unfounded. The immigrants by and large were immensely hardworking. They learned English and assimilated. Their energy helped fuel America's rise in the 20th century. And the fears this time are likely to be similarly unfounded. The children of today's immigrants are learning English. The newcomers are by and large hardworking. If they are competing at low wages now, they are also at the center of drives to raise the minimum wage and to organize low-paid workers.
We ignore the many contradictions of our immigration policy. Cuban immigrants are invited into America, welcomed and subsidized. Immigrants from neighboring Haiti are locked out and shipped back.
Vigilantes hunt immigrants coming over the Mexican border. But the Canadian border is basically unguarded, and undocumented immigrants from Canada raise no interest and are never called "illegals." Yet, so far as we know, the terrorists coming over the border have come through Canada, not Mexico.
Even as the vigilantes organize to keep undocumented workers out, employers organize to bring them in. They lobby for guest-worker programs, for seasonal exemptions for farm workers, for exemptions for high-tech workers. Or they just routinely hire undocumented workers as a source of cheap labor. But it is also true of liberal, upper-middle-class professionals, happy to have nonunion undocumented workers take care of their lawns, their children or their dogs.
The U.S. military provides an accelerated path to citizenship for legal permanent residents who can present a green card at enlistment. There are some 37,500 foreign nationals from 200 countries in the active-duty and reserve forces. Seventy-one have died in Iraq, three in Afghanistan. Non-citizens perform well; they also tend to serve longer than citizens do.
Undocumented immigrants are not allowed in the military in peacetime. But Section 329 of the Immigration Nationality Act says that an "alien" who "has served honorably" in the armed forces during a period of conflict "may be naturalized" whether or not he or she "has been lawfully admitted to the United States." This is an old tradition. In the Civil War, some 20 percent of the Union forces were not citizens; many were signed up directly off the boat. The second U.S. soldier who died under fire in the Iraq war had entered the United States illegally. With the Army and Marines having difficulty meeting their recruitment goals, more conservatives call for letting undocumented immigrants gain citizenship by agreeing to serve.
We need comprehensive immigration reform -- reform that removes the discrimination that embraces Europeans and excludes Africans, or hunts Mexicans and hugs Canadians. But we should remember that America is a nation of immigrants -- that's a fact, not a legend.
© 2006 Digital Chicago, Inc.