The Heart of the Immigration Debate: What Kind of Country Do We Want to Be?

Donald Trump prides himself in being someone who rejects the notion of political correctness. But his objections are usually just an excuse to be mean and vindictive. For a more honest repudiation of the concept, take a look at what Robert Merry wrote about “the profound question behind the immigration debate.” While painful to read, at least he’s direct in laying out the anti-immigrant position.

Behind the sturm und drang that greeted President Trump’s recent executive action on refugees lies the broader issue of U.S. immigration policies over the past half-century. And behind those immigration policies lies a profound question facing Americans: what kind of country do they want their country to be?

For most of our history, we have been largely a country of Europeans, a country of the West, with Western sensibilities and a shared devotion to the Western heritage. Now we are in the process of becoming something else—a mixed country without a coherent, guiding heritage of any civilization and certainly not of the West.

This is largely the result both of the numbers of immigrants coming into the country (both legal and illegal) and of the place of origin of most of those immigrants. In 1960, 84 percent of U.S. immigrants came from Europe and Canada; now that number is just 14 percent…

According to the Pew Research Center, by 2055 the United States will have no ethno-racial majority. When that happens, America will be a completely different country from what it was, say, when the Baby Boomers appeared on the scene and throughout American history before that.

The tears I cried at the election of Donald Trump were an expression of my grief in being wrong to think that, as a country, we had made some strides in moving beyond this kind of thinking.

Everything Merry says about being “a country of Europeans, a country of the West, with Western sensibilities and a share devotion to Western heritage” mirror what white supremacists stand for. Just in case you doubted that, he goes on to say that when the U.S. no longer has an ethno-racial majority (i.e., white), we will cease to be the country we’ve been throughout history.

Merry suggests that, until Trump, our political class was prepared to avoid this question. But now it’s front and center – especially with the president’s executive order on immigrants and refugees. In a way, I think he’s right about that. Let’s have this discussion about what kind of country we’ve been and what we want to be.

Merry is 100% wrong about our history and I certainly hope he’s wrong about our future. To demonstrate, please forgive me for quoting at length from President Obama’s amazing speech at the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma. It’s as good of a summary as you’re likely to find.

For we were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people. That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter. We know America is what we make of it.

Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.

We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.

We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.

We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

We are Jackie Robinson, enduring scorn and spiked cleats and pitches coming straight to his head, and stealing home in the World Series anyway.

We are the people Langston Hughes wrote of who “build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how.” We are the people Emerson wrote of, “who for truth and honor’s sake stand fast and suffer long;” who are “never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

To Mr. Merry, I would simply say that I don’t deny my own Western heritage. I celebrate it. But that is one of many strands that have come together to make this country what she is today. I’m proud of every one of them and the contributions they have made.

If we’re going to have a debate about the meaning of America going forward I say, “bring it on!” Let’s stop pretending that this is about something it’s not. Obama said that we’re “boisterous and diverse and full of energy.” To the extent that he’s right, let’s silence the fear-mongering and have the debate about what kind of country we want. I sure know where I stand on that one! How about you?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .