Since the founding of our republic, immigration has cemented itself as a controversial yet necessary and imperative component of America’s societal structure and cultural progress.
The first instance of nativist, knee-jerk resistance to the inevitability of immigration in the United States was the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1798 as a means of solidifying Federalist control of the government and silencing critics (many of whom were immigrants themselves).
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many pieces of legislation were passed limiting immigration or outright discriminating against foreigners (Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, migratory quotas of the 1920’s, etc.).
The fiery rhetoric of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is an alarming reminder of the omnipresent sentiments of nativism and anti-immigration that are still present within many sects of the American populace.
Common assertions made by anti-immigration activists such as Trump include the notion that immigrants (particularly those from Mexico and Latin America) are “stealing” jobs from Americans, driving up unemployment, that immigrants threaten traditional American institutions and (perhaps most inflammatory and offensive) that foreign countries send criminals who, as Trump claims, “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems… It’s true, and these are the best and the finest.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (The Washington Post, “Donald Trump’s ‘Mexican rapists’ rhetoric will keep the Republican Party out of the White House”, 06.17.2015).
Individuals in Trump’s camp seem to forget that the United States is a country where 100% of its population are the descendants of immigrants. In order for massive overhauls of the immigration system to be successful, reform must start in the minds of our citizens.
Immigrants are often times driven to illegally enter the United States due to economic conditions in their respective home countries, in search of the “American dream.” The reality is often that illegal immigrants take minimum wage level jobs and find themselves in poverty.
However, immigration continues to rise as these conditions are still more stable than the ones found in immigrants’ native homes. Over the last decade, the rate of deportation has steadily increased according to official Department of Homeland Security statistics.
In 2013 alone, over 438,000 immigrants were deported under the Obama administration, with 240,000 of these individuals having no prior criminal record.
In summer 2011, a Mexican immigrant, Daniel, was deported after being arrested for driving with an expired license. He had been living in the United States for over 12 years, having married an American woman whom he had a child with. Prior to his trivial arrest in Seattle, Daniel had an otherwise completely clean criminal record (The New York Times, “Crossing Over, and over”, 10.02.2011).
The treatment of immigrants by American authorities and political institutions oftentimes reflects the ingrained nativism that still exists in many parts of American society. Immigrants who hold jobs, abide by the law and legitimately contribute, both economically and culturally, to the United States are deported regularly. These draconian laws stand in stark contrast with America’s status as a “melting pot” of differing cultures and ideas.
The mindset of anti-immigration activists is one of homogeny and resistance to the concept that immigrants are a benefit to the nation, not a detriment. Immigration yields benefits both economically and culturally, as migrants bring with them not only a wealth of labor skills and solid work ethics, but also a multitude of cultural practices and identities that serve to enrich American culture.
For example, between 2009 and 2011, the average economic output for foreign citizens was around 14.7 percent (this includes unauthorized immigrants). The percentage of economic output is higher than the percentage of immigrants that make up the United States’ population, which is around 13 percent (Economic Policy Institute).
The cultural benefits of immigration are often overlooked as well. Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a young child. As a result of his American education and his experiences as an immigrant, Diaz produced some of the finest works of the 21st century.
Since then, Diaz has also become an outspoken critic of American policy towards immigration. Many immigrants are deprived of this opportunity to fulfill their potential as a result of discriminatory and nativist attitudes towards immigration.
Immigrants are a cornerstone of American society, culture and economics. Donald Trump’s promise to “build a wall” and popular support for such a policy is indicative of nativism that still is ever-present in the American zeitgeist.
If greater pathways to citizenship were available, immigrants could more easily find well-paying work, receive an education, and pay taxes, all of which would inevitably lead to greater fulfilled individual potential and, subsequently, heightened ability to make solid and long-lasting contributions to the United States.
Nativists must reconcile that they are the descendants of immigrants and live in a country built on the labor of immigrants. An open border policy may appear unattainable in the immediate future, but it is a necessary measure that the U.S. must strive towards in order to enrich the nation’s population and reaffirm the instrumental values upon which the country was founded.
When Americans can recognize the inherent freedom of movement that every individual is endowed with at birth, the tangible and invaluable benefits immigrants provide for the nation and the right for immigrants to pursue greater economic opportunity, then reform to America’s broken immigration system will be possible. Immigrants are people with dignity and they must be treated as such. They make up the American identity, and it’s time for the rest of the country to acknowledge this.