Slavery is “America’s Original Sin,” without a doubt. I think the way that the United States governments since Independence have treated immigrants is a close second. Time after time, the country seemed to settle on what being “American” was, and then the country rejected anyone not fitting the description until it was necessary to re-define the definition.
The first post-independence wave of immigrants came in the early 1800s, and those immigrants were from eastern Europe and Ireland. The Irish immigrants left a very bad famine in search for survival in America. According to the History Channel:
“Another major wave of immigration occurred from around 1815 to 1865. The majority of these newcomers hailed from Northern and Western Europe. Approximately one-third came from Ireland, which experienced a massive famine in the mid-19th century. In the 1840s, almost half of America’s immigrants were from Ireland alone. Typically impoverished, these Irish immigrants settled near their point of arrival in cities along the East Coast. Between 1820 and 1930, some 4.5 million Irish migrated to the United States.”
Later, in the same century, “…the United States received some 5 million German immigrants. Many of them journeyed to the present-day Midwest to buy farms or congregated in such cities as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. In the national census of 2000, more Americans claimed German ancestry than any other group.”
In the west, Asian immigrants also arrived in large numbers, helping in the expansion of the country from sea to shining sea. But the “Americans” were having none of it:
“The influx of newcomers resulted in anti-immigrant sentiment among certain factions of America’s native-born, predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population. The new arrivals were often seen as unwanted competition for jobs, while many Catholics–especially the Irish–experienced discrimination for their religious beliefs. In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party (also called the Know-Nothings) tried to severely curb immigration, and even ran a candidate, former U.S. president Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), in the presidential election of 1856.”
If those anti-immigration arguments sound familiar, it’s because they are being echoed today by modern anti-immigration groups and individuals. It’s always “they’re taking our jobs” along with underlying racist dog whistles of Mexicans being rapists, Muslims not wanting to assimilate to our culture, and Africans being backwards people. Of course, the reality is much different. The vast majority of immigrants from predominantly non-white or non-Christian (Protestant) countries are not criminals. They are very productive, and — after the Clinton Administration signed into law a welfare reform bill back in the 1990s — do not overburden social welfare systems because they are not allowed by law to be helped by those systems… At least not the systems funded by federal dollars.
So here we are today, arguing over immigration and “immigration reform” again, like we did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Legislators on the Right keep arguing for strict enforcement of existing laws on immigration, a near-militarization of the US border with (and only with) Mexico, and a denial of any kind of benefit to illegal immigrants and their families. The most radical right-wingers want the courts to reinterpret the US Constitution as it relates to who is a citizen and even who deserves equal protection under the law.
On the Left, legislators keep arguing for some form of amnesty or “regularization” of everyone who is here illegally. They want to fix the problems abroad that cause people to pick up en masse and make the dangerous trip to the United States. And they want children and young adults who were brought here illegally by their parents to be allowed to stay and begin a path toward citizenship. The more radical left-wingers want open borders and policies that welcome everyone and anyone into the country.
Like all things, the best solutions fall somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. There is no doubt that a secure border is necessary. We are living in a time when there is a real threat of a terrorist or a terrorist cell to make its way across the border and do some damage to innocent people. Is a wall the best solution? Probably not, from a fiscal and physical point of view. Walls can be breached. People can jump over them one way or another. Walls are expensive, and the money and other resources to build them would best be used to solve other issues that lead to illegal immigration. Still, the Border Patrol and other agencies along our borders (plural) need to be well funded and supported.
Most undocumented immigrants are here because they overstayed their visas, so there needs to be a way to verify that someone who enters for a pre-determined amount of time leaves when that time is up. Now, if they are here because they are escaping violence or persecution back home, the immigration courts need to listen to their please. Unfortunately, immigration courts are backlogged in a severe way right now, and many people end up getting deported before they can argue their case before a judge. So those resources not spent on a wall need to be spent on getting immigration courts working again.
Another big challenge is the drug trade. Because America is so addicted, a lot of drug cartels in Latin America and Asia are willing to inflict a lot of damage to people over there so we can get high over here. That makes people want to leave and go to places that are at peace and where they can prosper. For Europe, those immigrants are now leaving North Africa and parts of the Middle East. For the United States, those immigrants are now leaving Central America and parts of Mexico and South America. Dry up the cash for the cartels, and they are not able (or willing) to shoot it out with police, extort the population, or employ drug mules to bring drugs over the border.
That cash can be dried up by having a smart drug policy in the United States. People addicted to drugs are given help and opportunities to get sober. Economic and social policies are put in place to keep people from needing drugs to escape reality. Recreational use of drugs is decriminalized and taxed. People are not thrown away in jail for many years for having small quantities of drugs for personal use. Do these things and others, and do them well, and the drug cartels go broke. Farmers can then go back to growing food for people instead of marijuana, coca and poppies for billionaire drug lords.
But perhaps the most complicated issue when it comes to illegal immigration — the one thing we probably will not be able to overcome — is the divisiveness between the Left and the Right. Most on each side of the political spectrum believe that the other side is completely wrong, completely insane, completely un-American, or something like that. They’re not willing to compromise or even talk to each other. And it doesn’t seem like they will anytime soon.
So I’m willing to bet good money that next year we’ll be talking about immigration again.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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