Earlier this week, President Obama rolled out an aggressive package aimed at initiating immigration reform. After seeing how poorly they performed among Asian and Hispanic voters (the fastest growing minority voting blocs) in the 2012 election, GOP Congressional members are finally ready to sit down with the President and negotiate a new immigration package. The Senate package offered by a bipartisan group of Senators including Marco Rubio, calls for tougher employer verification system, new border security measures, and pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented citizens here in the United States.
The main difference between the Senate plan and the President’s plan comes in the path to citizenship. President Obama’s plan would allow immigrants to qualify for citizenship before new border security measures are reached. The Senate plan mandates that new (tougher) border security measures are reached as well as an improved plan to track immigrants who have arrived in the United States on work visas before citizenship is made available to the aforementioned undocumented citizens.
This is the minutia and weeds of the policy discussion on immigration. However what this ignores are the cultural discussions on immigration. As the President eloquently pointed out, unless you were a first American (Native American, indigenous tribes of the Americas)you or your ancestors were once immigrants.
Furthermore if we walk back in the annals of history we will find that most immigrants were greeted with hostility among those who were here upon their arrival, ironically for the early English settlers who were welcomed by the indigenous tribes of the Americas (there’s even a holiday to celebrate that). Yet the descendants of those English settlers who were later referred to as Protestant Americans treated Irish immigrants with contempt, hostility and disgust.
The Irish faced discrimination and in the decade before the turn of the 20th century, it was widely believed that the Irish immigrants were taking jobs from Americans (sound familiar).
The Irish were not the only ones to be greeted with hostility when approaching United States shores hoping for a better life. Many of those early 20th century immigrants coming from Eastern Europe gathered as “huddled masses” at New York’s Ellis Island. Those immigrants were predominantly of Russian Jewish descent. Some of the things said about them were as heinous as the things we hear about today’s wave of immigrants. Just take a look at the writer Ida V. Van Vetten’s words from 1893:
Most men, if asked what class immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews. There is a preconceived idea that because most of the Russian Jews are dirty, cannot speak the English language,and live closely crowded in unwholesome, ill- smelling tenement quarters; they therefore form an objectionable part of our population. To these causes there might be added that vague, indefinite phrase that they do not assimilate with other people.
Again, sound familiar. All of this and we have yet to mention how the African was greeted when they arrived on this continent because it is pretty obvious the terms and conditions in which they came upon this “shining city on a hill.” What we can take away from this walk down memory lane however is that it is not helpful to be so accusatory of new or different communities. As Dr. Jeremiah Wright said in Detroit in 2009 quoting Dr. Janice Hale “different does not mean deficient”. Once “old-stock” Americans learn and recognize that, we will be able to have sensible discussions on immigration and inclusion. Otherwise what we will have is xenophobia disguised as policy discussions with no one realizing their ancestors were once the victims of the same ignorant and counter-productive attitudes that are being displayed now. Ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Ray Baker is the host of the SiriusXM show “Real Talk with Ray Baker”. He also lectures at colleges and universities across the nation, having spoken at Yale, Duke & Georgetown Universities.