Our National Amnesia: Remember, Immigrants Make America Great

 NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

NYC in the distance from Alaska Air Flight 11 on Wednesday, January 24

Earlier this week, I spent a few days in New York City at Inman Connect. On the way into the city when I caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, I commented in my broken Spanish to my Lyft driver: she’s still there, she’s still beautiful.

For me, this trip was a timely reminder of our history. Unless you are a Native American (they were here first), an African-American descended from chattel slavery (we were brought here in chains), or a Mexican-American from one of the areas “ceded” in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them) you are likely either an immigrant or descended from immigrants.

In 2016, during the GOP primary, the $20,000,000,000 wall that candidate Trump wanted to build along our southern border was a punchline that other candidates rightfully derided. Now, mainstream GOP figures have gone from mocking the Wall to embracing it. It is now the centerpiece of the immigration plan being proposed by the congressional majority. The capitulation on the Wall, first by Republicans, and now by Senate Democrats is an indicator of what ails us.  

If you are white or believe yourself to be white, your family’s story likely goes something like the plot of Sergio Leone's 1984 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America: They arrived from the working class neighborhoods or farms surrounding Sicily, Dublin, Stuttgart, Krakow, Sarajevo, or East London. Many of them were not considered white in their lifetimes--they were called Wops, Polacks, Jews, Krauts, Olafs, Squareheads, and Micks. They arrived broke as hell. They arrived not speaking English. They moved into neighborhoods full of other immigrants and shopped at ethnic markets. They found work, backbreaking manual labor--farm work, construction, working in sweltering hot kitchens, driving taxis for 60+ hours a week. They lived in crappy apartments or small rural houses. They met someone and settled down. They put their children in school and taught them the value of hardwork. Their children spoke English at school and their native language at home. They sent long letters home in pidgin English singing the praises of America and the opportunities here. More recent immigrants sent home remittances via Western Union. Soon others from their villages, towns, and neighborhoods followed the paths they tread to America. They learned English over time, but spoke with a heavy accent until their death.

This is the American story. Immigrants to the US have always come from what some might call "shithole countries" and "shithole neighborhoods". But, they came with dreams. They worked, saved, bought homes, and helped bring other family members here. This is the “chain migration” our national leaders refer to with such derision. Chain migration is simply a means of family reunification.

 I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

I have shirt that says “Immigrants Make America Great.” I don’t wear it to make a political point. I wear it because I know our nation’s history.

A call to my conservative readers and friends: Over seventy-percent of Americans support protections for Dreamers. Reasonable people can disagree about policy: should DACA recipients be eligible for citizenship or just permanent residency? Should we have a diversity lottery or move to a points based system like Canada? Those are points up for debate. But, we can’t allow American nativists to dominate the national immigration conversation with their ahistorical tales and white-nationalist tirades. We can’t normalize the Breitbarts and Stephen Millers, nor their monochromatic, ethno-nationalist lexicons and worldviews.

Watching our national conversation about immigration, I feel like we’re losing a part of our collective humanity. Watching Christians whom I’ve known for decades turn into belligerent nativists is breathtaking. Seeing folks who claim to support family values, prattle on in dehumanizing language about “anchor babies” or “the illegals” shows how lost we truly are. The Dreamers I teach have committed no crime and are as American as my US-born students. My immigrant students from Africa give their all in the classroom and then work after school to support their families. My Salvadoran grads work hard and then set up side hustles selling pupusas out of their homes to make tuition. They are all as integral to the American tapestry as you or I.
 

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia