The Immigration Debate Is Misguided

Posted on Dec 24, 2015
Chapel Hill, NC

There’s been a noticeable uptick in the last half of 2015 of xenophobia in America. At least, from an outside observer in Germany looking at American news reports there’s been an increasing occurrence of articles reporting on politicians as well as normal people dropping all pretense of civility and idealism for fear and anger. There’s the popularity of the one who is not to be named, the mogul whose created a political following through preaching hate, boisterously shouting that “we” are great and “they” are rapists and terrorists. Then there are many individual acts of xenophobia, such as the threat from one neighbor to another that he would never let his neighbor build a mosque in his town in Virginia because all Muslims are terrorists. The fact that these ugly sentiments resonate with so many raises, once again, the question of who we are and who we want to be. But first, who’s “we”?

It appears that the “we” that the one who is not to be named asserts leadership of is a “we” that is composed of 2nd-generation or later immigrants who claim ownership to an America that they have lived in for 80 to, at the longest, 400 years. “We” are white, in at least the mode that whiteness is commonly understood to be. The common understandings of whiteness has changed many times over the course of America’s history, because whiteness was an official requirement to gain American citizenship from the very beginning (see the United States Naturalization Law of 1790). It’s a complicated history, but in short people of groups who were not white challenged the whiteness requirement, or asserted that they were, in-fact, white, and over the course of many years the common understanding of what it meant to be white changed. The one who is not to be named and the majority of his followers tend to be white, and residents of population centers smaller than medium size cities. With this understanding of “we”, “they” is anyone who does not meet this definition.

This herd-like group mentality has significantly affected the debate about immigration, because engaging in a dialectic of “us” in opposition to “them” allows one to dehumanize the other. Immigrants do not have civil rights, it is said, because they are not American. This is flawed on two accounts. First, it refutes the universality of human rights. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is not applied to all, but rather those to whom had the chance to be born on one part of the globe at a certain time in history. We cheapen the efficacy of the idea when it’s applied selectively, and we should be treating all people equally, whether it’s an immigrant without documentation, a Muslim, or any other individual. Merkel said it well, in regards to refugees coming into Europe: “Everyone that arrives in Europe has the right to be treated like a human being! We did not create the Charter of Fundamental Rights so that we could treat people from other places inhumanely,” Secondly, the idea that immigrants are fundamentally different is false. Oftentimes there are superficial differences, such as language or outward appearance, but once these things are ameliorated through medium-term acculturation, it becomes clear that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Anyone who’s ever spent any time living in more than one society would be able to attest to it.

Let’s move beyond the fearful, angry rhetoric of the one who is not to be named and work to punch holes in his categorization of who “we” are. This means engaging people who think differently and working to changing their minds.