Immigration Policy: Who Do We Want to Be?

Immigration Policy: Who Do We Want to Be?

Always. A loaded word.

Some of my children believe that we “always” had pizza on Christmas Eve. That’s because, for many years, we did. Not when Carol and I were first married, when every penny was precious. And not now, now that our family has grown in number, in generations, and in allergies to things like gluten and dairy.

But for a number of years in between, yes, we always had pizza on Christmas Eve.

Always . . . whenever we use it, we always are giving voice to oversimplification, to mythologizing, or to wishful thinking (and yes, I know what I just did).

These musings have been prompted by the conversations and demonstrations related to President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees and immigrants.

I know enough of this nation’s history to know that we have not always welcomed immigrants and refugees. Fear of groups understood as “other” is not a new phenomenon. Arguably, the “type” of the undesirable immigrant is persistent; each generation simply applies the type to the target group of the time. A reading of anti-immigrant rhetoric aimed at the Irish in the mid-19th century anticipates later rhetoric against other immigrant groups with eerie precision.

On the other hand, the fact is that we are a nation of immigrants. While federal immigration policy alternately opened and shut the gates to this land, every decennial census from 1860 to 1920 registered a foreign-born population in excess of 13% of the total U.S. population. The percentage did not drop below 10% until 1940, when war was raging in Europe and Asia.

A steady decline in the percentage of foreign-born residents began with the 1910 census. Over the next 60 years, the percentage of foreign-born residents declined by two-thirds, reaching an historic low of 4.7% in the 1970 census. This trend not only reflects absolute declines in the number of foreign-born residents over the period, but a significant growth in U.S.-born residents, including the “baby boom” post-WWII generation.

Over the last 40 years, the immigrant population has grown substantially in both number and as a percentage of the overall population. Even so, the percentage of the U.S. population in 2010 that was foreign-born (12.9%) was lower than it was at any time from 1860 to 1920.

These national historical patterns mask huge variations at the local level. Immigrant populations tend to concentrate in certain areas, including ports of entry and areas where previous generations of immigrants from that country or region have chosen to settle. Consequently, one’s perception of the size of the immigrant population can vary widely from the aggregate statistical facts.

The question before us is, what we will be now? We can choose to stem the flow or facilitate it. We can decide, as a nation, how we wish to deal with those who flee their troubled homelands or seek new opportunities here. We’re neither compelled to slam the door nor to throw it wide. Neither the myth of a white America nor the myth of a nation that always welcomes “your tired, your poor” compels us to do anything.

At least . . . we ought not to let it. Because neither has “always” been true.

What is true is that our choices will define us for generations to come. Who do we want to be?

2 Responses to Immigration Policy: Who Do We Want to Be?

  • Felix Perez

    Nothing I’ve read could have been truer than what you have written Dr. Paine. Thank you for a well balanced view