The current debate centered around immigration and undocumented workers in the US ultimately is a fear amongst white America claiming the US will lose its essence as we allow more migrants to enter the US, whether legally or illegally. This fear, or xenophobia, is particularly strong around Hispanic migrants, I presume, because Hispanics have a strong cultural identity, centered on language, customs, and religion. The first and second generations of migrants tend to keep a lot of their cultural identity, and don’t assimilate until the second to third generation. This has been the case with the wave of Irish, Italian, German, and Russian migrants. The assimilation by Asian migrants may perhaps be much faster than some European, as well as Hispanic migrants, but assimilation is generally not a 1-generation phenomenon.
We hardly blink an eye when we meet someone with an Irish or Italian last name. If they were born in the US and don’t have an accent, we generally consider them white, or “American.” But some generations ago, those same families were the outcasts of American society. They were the new migrants, and fear of the newcomers has always created an “us” versus “them” stereotype, vilifying the group as a whole, by the actions of the few. The real fear around immigration is that we will no longer look the same, namely “white.”
What is incredible about the United States is not that we live in a democracy, or that we have certain rights. After all, we did not invent democracy, and there are much more progressive countries in the world that protect civil rights much stronger than we could ever. Freedom of religion and speech are not characteristics only enjoyed by Americans. To the contrary, those rights have been practices for years before the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was even conceived. To me, what makes America great is that we are a country of immigrants, and we have treasured this tradition, since before the US was born. The founding father were not all US born. Many, including Alexander Hamilton, were actually born abroad, and no one questions whether they were truly “American.” What differentiates migrants from natural born Americans is that migrants actually chose to come to the US, while most US born American cannot claim to have chosen to be here, they are here by default.
As we contemplate whether to deny citizenship to US born children of foreigners, build walls to divide countries, deport mothers and fathers and even children, let us remember that what has made the US unique in this world is its acceptance of the huddled masses. We have opened our doors to the poor and refugees, those seeking religious freedoms, and economic opportunity. What makes America great is not that we were born are white. We may not know how America will look like in 50 years, but there is no question that in 50 years, we will still be uniquely American.