Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Immigration Reform, Abstract and Personal

Where to stand on immigration reform is easy -- in the abstract.

We must have secure borders. A nation that can not control its borders can not long remain a nation. The tide of illegal immigration must be stopped.

That's the easy part.

But for so many of us, it becomes much more difficult when viewed on a personal level.

You may not know an illegal immigrant. You may not have had a nanny or au pair who overstayed her visa, or worked contrary to the visa's terms -- or was just plain undocumented. But you may well know someone who has employed an 'illegal' nanny. You may not have a lawn service -- but you probably know people who do.

I don't have either a nanny or a lawn service. But I worked for a building contractor nearly 30 years ago, after my first year of law school, as a laborer. I was the only Anglo among the laborers. The others were Mexican. I did not know their immigration status, but I can guess. We lived in an area (now the built-up Northwest suburbs of Chicago) that had a long tradition of Mexican migrant laborers coming through each summer to work local farms.

Anyway, these men got to work before I did, and left later. They were stronger than I was, and worked harder. And they sent much of their money "home" to their families.

It is impossible to see such men as felons.

It is fascinating to listen to the immigration debate today: The conservatives claim to be protecting the wages of American workers. The liberals call for the operation of a free market in labor. (No, I didn't get that backwards.) And the big business types, that one would ordinarily assume to be in the conservatives' camp, are all in favor of 'guest worker' status for illegals (do you think that might be because they buy into the idea that illegals keep wages down?).

But in all the talk about fences and felonies, on the one hand, and 'guest workers' and amnesty on the other, I'm not hearing enough about whether the immigrants among us already are here to become Americans -- or just here for the cash. In fairness, the McCain-Kennedy proposal supposedly requires that illegals learn English as part of their process of normalization. But there seems to be some sort of embarrassment about being American that permeates our society at all levels, and that is a matter of concern to me.

My children have all had an assignment, in grammar school, to write about their 'country of origin' -- and to put 'their flag' on the cover of their report. When my oldest told me about this assignment, I told her to put an American flag on the cover and write about the United States. This is where she was born. I got angry when she insisted that she had to write about either Cuba (where her mother's family comes from) or Ireland (home of my remote ancestors). (And I was angry with the school, not with my daughter, because that was what the assignment required.)

I think it's wonderful that a family keeps the traditions it brought with it into this country. It's nobody's business what language is spoken at home. American culture is a tapestry, woven from the threads of the myriad of traditions imported to these shores by immigrants. But people who come here should come here to become Americans; those of us who are Americans should be proud of who and what we are -- even if, and maybe even especially when, we disagree with a particular President or a particular party.

When did the oath of citizenship change? It formerly required renunciation of every foreign prince or potentate. Now we have "dual citizenship." It's not just Mexicans voting in Mexican elections in Chicago. There were Iraqis driving across the Midwest to vote in Rosemont for the new Iraqi government. We recently had a prominent Chicagoan campaigning to represent 'overseas Italians' in the next Italian parliament. (I don't know if he won or lost.) I know many Americans with Irish passports (although that may not a bad idea, I suppose, as a safety measure given the enmity which Americans can face overseas).

My point is this. The topic of immigration reform can't be limited only to a discussion of what to do about illegal immigrants. We have to address whether we who are here already are also asking newcomers to assimilate, to become Americans like us. I think we need to renew and celebrate our belief that being an American is something special, and desirable. That doesn't mean we embrace the prejudices that scarred our ancestors: Being an American is not about having blonde hair or blue eyes; being an American has always been more about ideas than genetics. (Don't tell me that I'm overlooking slavery and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. I'm not. I dispute the contention that this central fact of American history undermines my point. It underscores my point instead: Indeed, the civil rights movement can be seen as a struggle for African Americans to fully participate in the American meritocracy.) To be an American requires the embrace of principles of individual liberty, fair play, self-reliance, equal opportunity, tolerance. Yes, that's a partial list; yes, we can argue about what these values mean. I think of Frank Capra movies when I try to define what being an American is -- but I realize even that reference can be, and was at one time, controversial.

There's a quote from Theodore Roosevelt about immigration circulating now among red-meat conservatives. The cited link shows that TR made this statement shortly before his death, in 1919, not in 1907 as the ubiquitous e-mail asserts (hence the reference, omitted in the partial quote that follows, to the "red flag"). But here's the important part of the quote: "In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin."

Isn't that a good basis upon which to start discussing how to deal with the illegal immigrants who are already here?

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