I just saw this piece in the nytimes today and thought it was really worth sharing:
America the Generous: A Lost Story of Citizenship
When people bicker over immigration, it’s often not long before the topic turns to My Family Came Here Legally. People whose roots go to Ellis Island or deeper like to say that. It fills their family trees with hard-working people who were poor but played by the rules, who got with the American program. It draws a bright line between upstanding Americans and those shadowy illegal workers hiding one big secret and who knows how many others.
It’s that line — that moral chasm between Us and Them, and between an idealized history and the muddled present — that informs the worst parts of the Senate immigration bill. It’s not only the provisions that create an incredibly grudging path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — charging them $5,000 apiece and requiring them to jump through pointless and punishing hoops that include a “touchback” trip home to Mexico, say, or Manila. It’s also the belief that immigrants with little to offer us but their toil and sweat should be brought in only as guest laborers, with no hope of becoming citizens, and that the paths to entry for immigrants’ relatives must be narrowed.
Congress has taken the week off from the debate, with members going home to districts that have already been inflamed by the loud and loony right, which has decided that the bill is that filthy thing “amnesty” and that the nation’s character would be defiled if it ever forgave illegal immigrants for coming here to do our worst jobs, or let too many more people in to put down roots. You could call that view unkind and uncharitable. You could also call it unwise, given economic realities.
I would add un-American.
My view has been informed by “Americans in Waiting,” a book by Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, about what he calls a lost story of a confident young country that opened itself to newcomers in ways that seem unthinkably generous today.
For about 150 years, Professor Motomura writes, from shortly after the country’s birth to the end of the Ellis Island heyday in the 1920s, when there were no numerical limits to immigration and the flow was mostly from western Europe, new immigrants could gain many of the rights of citizens by signing a document declaring their intention to naturalize. They became Americans in waiting, able to work, vote, buy land and clear homesteads.
The elegant idea was that immigration was simply the beginning of an inevitable transition toward full membership in a growing country. The ancestors of so many Americans, including today’s immigration hard-liners, benefited from it.
It’s important not to romanticize that history. The doors were more open for white Europeans than for members of other groups, like the Chinese and Japanese, who were almost entirely shut out. Many white immigrants — the Irish, Italians, European Jews — suffered profound discrimination once they arrived. Over time, the era of Ellis Island gave way to quotas, country and employment categories, and long waiting lists for everyone. With long waiting lists came people desperate enough to jump them.
The newcomer, once a citizen’s near equal, has come to be viewed as a perpetual outsider. The dominant view of immigration is no longer what Professor Motomura calls “immigration as transition” but immigration as “contract” and “affiliation.” Immigrants must meet ever-more-demanding terms of entry and slowly forge connections here before equality becomes an option.
Professor Motomura does not argue that “immigration as transition” is the superior or only model, but rather that it should be restored to its place beside the other two. He would go much farther than today’s politicians in giving rights to new legal immigrants — even granting government benefits — but on the condition that they take advantage of the chance to become citizens after five years. Those who do not would revert to a more limited status.
Professor Motomura contends that the machinery of assimilation will work if we let it. Immigrants who are unduly insecure, he says, who are worried not only about jobs, health and finances but also contractual obligations that the United States could revoke at any time, naturally retreat to ethnic enclaves. Those who are confident in their welcome, he argues, are more likely to plunge headlong into American life.
Professor Motomura, whose parents immigrated from Japan, is convinced that immigrants will cherish citizenship more if it is easier to get. Maybe that’s crazy. But it’s American, and reflects a confidence in this country that the architects of the restrictive parts of the Senate bill have lost, if they ever had it.