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Halbritter: ‘Immigration hysteria’ is nothing new in America

<i>Editors’ note: This column was published in The Buffalo News on May 21, 2006.</i>

Real” Americans are getting hysterical over immigration, again. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that makes it a crime to pursue the American dream without the proper papers.

“Real” Americans are calling for the mass roundup and deportation of an estimated 11 million people who have entered the United States illegally, although they are short on details, like where these people would be incarcerated while awaiting formal deportation proceedings.

This latest spell of immigration hysteria is nothing new, and it is no coincidence that it comes at a time when persons of Latino or Hispanic origin are reshaping American cultural identity.

In the 120-year history of U.S. efforts to exert control over the flow of immigrants into this country, virtually every such effort has been in response to some panic over race, religion or ideology, and the targets of these initiatives have invariably been those who do not look, worship or think like the so-called “dominant European culture” of this country.

The very first official federal immigration law, passed in 1882, was called the Chinese Exclusion Act; and it barred all immigration from China for 60 years. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt made a deal with Japan. He would force California schools to integrate Japanese students already living here, and in return Japan would stop its citizens from trying to enter the United States. By 1917, nearly all Asian immigrants were barred from entering the country.

Not satisfied to stop there, in 1921 Congress moved to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe by introducing quotas for each country. Eight years later, the government formally reserved 70 percent of all admissions for immigrants from northern and western Europe – that is, the primarily Protestant, light-skinned populations of the British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia. Only 30 percent of all admissions were reserved for people from the “less desirable” areas of southern and eastern Europe, where the population was primarily Catholic or Jewish and darker-skinned.

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Listen carefully to the arguments and proposals concerning immigration today, and you will hear that this wave of hysteria is just as racist, bigoted and intolerant as any other in our history. The House bill calls for a 700-mile security fence along the Mexican border, but there is no similar provision for a security fence along the Canadian border. Is it only a coincidence that Canadians look more like “real” Americans than Hispanics do? Of course it isn’t. Like the northern and western Europeans of a century ago, Canadians are “desirable” immigrants, while Hispanics are in the same “undesirable” category as the Italians, Jews, Slavs and Russians of the 1920s.

The unpalatable truth is that America’s mythical “melting pot” has always been highly compartmentalized and more like “alphabet soup.” Just as American Indians were forced onto remote reservations to keep them out of the way, immigrants were forced into segregated neighborhoods – think of every major city’s Little Italy, Chinatown and similar enclaves – where their differences would not offend the dominant culture. Today we have English-only initiatives and penalties for people who employ illegal immigrants, policies that are designed to close doors rather than open them. But none of these has stemmed the desire of people from other countries to live here.

The United States, thanks to its wealth, its opportunities, its constitutional freedoms and its shining principle of justice for all, is clearly the promised land for millions of people living in abject poverty under corrupt, repressive or simply ineffectual regimes. The vast majority of immigrants, legal or illegal, don’t cross our borders because they aspire to become wards of the government. They come because they dream of a better life for themselves and their children, of opportunities that are denied them at home, of the freedom to work, worship and think the way they want to.

Those self-professed guardians of our borders, the “real” Americans, could learn a lot from the first Americans. American Indians have dealt with “boat people” ever since their initial contact with Europeans. Our ancestors doubtless experienced some qualms about dealing with people who looked different, spoke a different language and worshipped differently. Yet the newcomers were welcomed. Resources were shared. Friendships were forged. Thanksgiving was created.

Panic, intolerance, bigotry and isolationism will not resolve the issues attending the immigration debate. It is time for all sides to step back a pace, take a deep breath and look for solutions that are both reasonable and compassionate. It is time for this country to renew its commitment to the ideals symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, shining her beacon of freedom for all the world to see and inviting, in Emma Lazarus’ famous words, “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

All it takes is a willingness to look beyond the things that divide us and bring out the things that unite us. That, after all, is what true leaders do: They bring people together.

<i>Ray Halbritter is nation representative for the Oneida Indian Nation of New York. Halbritter is CEO of the Oneida Nation’s various business enterprises, including Four Directions Media, the publisher of Indian Country Today. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.