Who You Calling an Immigrant?

President Obama saying you are an immigrant unless you are Native American has sent shockwaves throughout the country, immigration reform is on agenda

For many in Indian country, President Barack Obama said magic words, “It’s really important for us to remember our history. Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you.”

Somebody brought you. Or you showed up. Even uninvited. Yet after two centuries of borders, two centuries of crossing a line on a map, who’s really an immigrant in the 21st century?

For example: Right now Indian country is witnessing and participating in an explosion of political action started by our brothers and sisters in Canada. The #idlenomore hashtag is displayed at intertribal meetings, on Facebook, and just about everywhere. But because of a nonsensical U.S. immigration policy, any member of a Canadian tribe is not a native in this land, at least in the eyes of the law. We know that’s not true. The same legal outlook is cemented in code for native people from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central or South America.

Yet we cross borders. We share stories. We share experiences. We share songs. This is a different narrative than the other “shared history” that both the president and the senators who are proposing immigration reform talk about this week.

Their story is this kind of “shared” immigration. “The Irish who left behind a land of famine. The Germans who fled persecution. The Scandinavians who arrived eager to pioneer out west. The Polish. The Russians. The Italians. The Chinese. The Japanese. The West Indians. The huddled masses who came through Ellis Island on one coast and Angel Island on the other,” the president said. “All those folks, before they were ‘us,’ they were ‘them.’ And when each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time, as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here, they did their part to build a nation.”

That is a story that starts somewhere in the middle, leaving out the chapters about conquest. It is a retelling of Manifest Destiny.

Nonetheless “in the coming weeks” there will again be a debate about reform that starts with that shared experience of immigration. “Throughout our history,” the president said, immigration “has only made our nation stronger. And it’s how we will make sure that this century is the same as the last: An American century welcoming of everybody who aspires to do something more, and who is willing to work hard to do it, and is willing to pledge that allegiance to our flag.”

This is where the story gets complicated; a wreck at the intersection of past and present. So much of the controversy about immigration has been promoted by those who had a narrow idea about who should be called an immigrant. “America was created by 17th- and 18th-century settlers who were overwhelmingly white, British, and Protestant. Their values, institutions, and culture provided the foundation for and shaped the development of the United States in the following centuries,” wrote Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in Foreign Policy magazine a few years ago. His idea was that immigration took a wrong turn when it let too many brown people into the United States. He called it a serious challenge to the national identity. Worse yet: Immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico, had higher fertility rates.

The problem for Huntington and his allies is that they could no longer use force to overwhelm a population. They had to make certain that the law kept people out (even when geography and modern travel could not).

Yet Huntington’s notion is a key to understanding the politics. Those who are against immigration—any immigration reform—want to preserve the America that never was, the white, British, Protestant enclave.

Eight U.S. Senators: Charles E. Schumer of New York; Michael Bennett of Colorado; Richard J. Durbin of Illinois; Robert Menendez of New Jersey (all Democrats); and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, John McCain and Jeff Flake from Arizona; and, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have come together with an immigration reform plan that is supposed to restore a shared notion about immigration. The group says this will happen with four main principles: border enforcement, employer enforcement, the handling of the flow of legal immigration (including temporary agricultural workers and high-skilled engineers) and a pathway to citizenship for those who entered the nation illegally.

The last one, already dismissed as amnesty, is what McCain calls “most controversial piece” because it lays down a legal path for the undocumented immigrants already here.

The anti-immigration opposition says, yes, it’s about amnesty. And securing the border. But really it’s also about protecting Huntington’s view of American culture.

Even the symbol of a border conveys the idea about protecting that culture. But people crossing the border in the desert was never the only route. “Nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally through a port of entry such as an airport or a border crossing point where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials, the Pew Hispanic Center reported in 2006. 

Of course the cynical aspect of immigration reform is the question, “why now?” Immigration, after all, is declining.

“The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill. After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants—most of whom came illegally—the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed, according to a new analysis of government data from both countries,” the Pew Hispanic Center said last year.

The reasons were declining prospects for jobs, a border that was harder to cross, and Mexico’s birth rates were slowing.

So as a political problem in the United States the issue should have been narrowed to how to resolve the status of 12 million people already here.

But that was before the election—and before the Hispanic vote trounced Republicans. The New York Times figured about seven-in-ten Hispanics cast ballots for the president’s re-election.

This is motivation enough for President Obama and the Democrats. The goal is eventual citizenship for the 12 million people who are already living in and contributing to the country. (And as a bonus, most will vote Democratic.)

So after the election, Republicans had to figure out how to shift views and still pretend that they were still protecting American culture. That’s why border enforcement (again, no longer a problem) and employment enforcement are on that list.

The funny thing is that this strategy probably won’t work. The same polling from the New York Times shows that Hispanic voters do indeed want a comprehensive immigration solution, but that they are also more liberal than Republicans think they are. There’s support for gay marriage, abortion rights, and a distrust of a smaller government. “So for any Republicans crafting a strategy that focuses solely on Hispanic voters and immigration policy in order to win back the White House in 2016, they may want to re-examine this year’s exit poll results,” the Times said.

And it’s won’t end the cultural war either. Already talk show host Rush Limbaugh has said it’s up to him and Fox News to stop immigration reform. The House of Representatives is far closer to this view than their colleagues in the Senate.

So who will be welcomed as 21st century immigrants? It all depends on the cynical drive of politicians who want to win. It’s only too bad they can’t reflect on the true history of immigration, starting at the beginning of the story.

Read Obama's speech:

President Barack Obama Speaks on a Comprehensive Immigration Reform