Our country suffers from a crisis, and it is poisoning our communities, invading our border towns, altering our schools, frustrating our communication, and taking our jobs. No, the root of this calamity is not immigration. It is amnesia.
The idea of “America” is defined in conflicting ways, and can represent a beacon of democratic hope or the epitome of neocolonialism to those who live within and outside our borders. However we see ourselves, we certainly have dominant American values: Normative culture desires the right to worship and the right to improve our station in life with hard work; in short, and above all, we value independence, advancement and freedom. Such narratives of the “American Way” dominate our thought lives; and yet, I would argue that these ideals are held and acted upon in incredibly thoughtless ways. Many of us prize the liberties of religion, freedom of movement, and self-possession, and yet, the America that exists for many of our inhabitants is neither accessible nor free. I do not attempt to write a nuanced approach to immigration policy here; instead, I offer crucial historical context that will hopefully encourage us to think again about the way we think about immigrants and their place among us.
Our country has well-documented waves of immigration, each of which were met with violence, accusations of ruining the country, and brandings of outsider status. Indeed, since before the American Revolution, we have targeted and excluded Chinese, Germans, Jews, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Muslims and Mexicans in different decades. We have a long history of blaming people from other countries for our own discomfort, documented by decades of legislation that prevent specific nationalities from entering the United States. In American history, periods of stagnation and uncertainty have usually been manipulated to lead to periods of fear, fueling nativist impulses that inevitably exclude and scapegoat anyone who can easily be called an outsider. Indulging our most basic instincts, we seem to believe blaming others will distract us from the causes of our uncertainty or loss. Listed on paper, these laws, grouped chronologically by hatred and rejection of one country or another, seem rather silly, and quite bigoted. The fact that this history is not referenced as appropriate context for our current immigration discussion stems from our collective amnesia.
I posit that amnesia is the root of the identity crisis currently portrayed as an immigration crisis because our country has only existed for 240 years. This means that even the longest settled of our families have been “American” for less than 10 generations. Among American power brokers (a group from which native peoples have been systematically excluded), immigration is therefore a part of every single American narrative. Despite the fact that these migrating narratives are actually shared by every family, most of us whose families have been here for three generations or more instead use these narratives to create distance between “us” and “them.” In my view, this distance, which leads to elitism, exclusivity, and possessiveness, stems from America’s favorite past time: Celebrating our own exceptionality.
We reconcile our history as outsiders with our current orientation as insiders in one of two ways. The first is outright, willful, amnesia. We simply pretend we climbed out of Noah’s ark and onto American dry land. We have always spoken English, loved white picket fences, baseball and church on Sundays. We claim to have always belonged, and forget that all of us were once outsiders. I think this commitment to telling our stories of hard work and belonging are actually the purest demonstration of American identity: We tell stories to help us articulate who we are and to whom we belong. Most often, the narratives we tell ourselves about our histories are stories of ascension, proving that we were destined to belong. American story-telling is crucial to our identity construction because stories help us create community. Importantly though, the stories of our own belonging—in which we embody the essence of Americaness—purposely exclude others. A collective amnesia allows us to embrace our legacy of belonging, even as we ignore others, denying them their stories of ascension.
The second avenue we take to reconcile our own migrating history with our now very settled selves is the doctrine of exceptionality. Yes, my family immigrated here in the last century, but we were already basically Americans in our hearts, we simply had the misfortune of being born Irish, Italian, English, Canadian or German. We loved church, and felt called by God to come here. We already knew how to work hard, and we loved freedom. We were not asking for a handout, just a chance to fulfill our own American Dream. I guess you could call us immigrants, but we were different, exceptional, and not like those people creating today’s immigration crisis.
This claim of exceptionality prevents relationships in several ways. It destroys any chance of a shared history that connects people in real community. It prevents empathy from shaping our connections with others. Instead of finding points of similarity and compassion for people experiencing the hardships our families once faced and overcame, we reject the noble effort required to uproot, work hard and create a new life one step at a time. Connecting with others, finding empathy for their hopes and dreams, would require us to recognize the ways in which we are similar. Our commitment to exceptionality, to framing our journeys with idealistic terms of destiny, prevents us from recognizing the humanity in others. Finally, we support negative stereotypes of new immigrants and Americans in order to widen the space between us and them. If we allow our collective amnesia to fuel our false narratives of exceptionality, then we can only think of immigrants as “them”, never “us.”
Our commitments to our amnesia and exceptionality are as strong as our commitment to preserving the American Dream and the American Way. The great irony is that, because of American exceptionality, we are actively destroying the fabric of society made of the values we say we uphold. As we look to pass lasting legislation regarding Dreamers and for immigrants living and working here below the radar, perhaps we should remember that many of our families came to America as outsiders who also dreamed.