These Are the Important Questions Raised in the Immigration Debate

James Hohmann wrote something recently that has stuck with me: “When they look back a century from now, historians will likely write that immigration and health care were the defining issues of our time.”

I think he has a good point. Passing Obamacare was a serious uphill climb for Democrats and ever since then, it has been the focus of attacks from Republicans. That front is relatively quiet right now, but the Trump administration continues to try to undermine our access to health care with things like allowing states to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. On the other hand, if and when Democrats win back the presidency and gain more influence in Congress, we’re sure to see efforts to build on Obamacare.

Right now, immigration is front and center. Behind Trump’s blathering racism, the topic is stirring up some deep questions about what kind of country we’ve been and what we want to be in the future. Along those lines, Jonah Goldberg asks, “What if diversity isn’t America’s strength?” Anyone who knows the author will be suspect about his conclusions from the get-go. But for those of us who do consider diversity to be a strength, it is a worthwhile endeavor to check our assumptions. So let’s take a look at what he has to say.

Goldberg makes three arguments. The first is a question of whether or not diversity is always a good thing. As an example, he suggests that diversity in height wouldn’t be good for basketball. If our only goal in life were to win basketball games, he would have a point. But the truth is that I don’t care how tall my doctor is, or the author of my favorite book, or the IT guy who fixes my computer. In real life, we need people to diagnose and treat our ailments, just as we need art and people with technology skills. That’s where diversity comes in to play.

Secondly, Goldberg makes the traditionally conservative argument that the problem with diversity in immigration is that we no longer value assimilation. When you hear that one, you should immediately recognize that behind it is an embrace of the status quo (i.e., white patriarchy). It is the lifeblood of the nostalgia voters. The concept comes down to the assumption that it’s fine to have immigrants come to this country, but they have to change to be just like us.

One need only think about what people from different cultures have brought to us by way of diversity of foods in order to think about how ridiculous that argument is. But I have another example. One of the groups that immigrated to my area back in the 1980s and 90s were the Hmong people from Laos. Because they came from small farming villages, their adjustment to this country was a mammoth task. One of the many things that cropped up was the need to teach them parenting skills that would work in this culture. I always chaffed a bit at that. The Hmong people have incredibly strong family ties, with a definition of “family” that extends well beyond our concept of a nuclear (often single parent) unit. I thought that a better model would be an exchange of thoughts about parenting that would glean the best of both cultures. That is how diversity works.

Goldberg’s final argument is one that demonstrates an ignorance of what this whole idea of self-government is all about. He questions the need for strength.

President Trump constantly extols strength, at home and abroad. He praised the Chinese government for showing strength at Tiananmen. He admires Vladimir Putin’s strong leadership. On the campaign trail, he upended the traditional conservative critique of big government by decrying the “weakness” of America’s political leaders and institutions.

Strength, it seems to me, is a top priority of every nationalist creed. It fits more uncomfortably within American notions of patriotism.

Regular readers will recognize that what Goldberg is talking about equates strength with an authoritarian understanding of dominance as the only form of power. He goes on to explain:

If you read the Federalist Papers, you’ll learn that among the top priorities of the founders was to ensure that the government, particularly any branch of government, not be too powerful. The Bill of Rights is all about constraining the power of government. The Constitution never once mentions the words “strength” or “strong.” Neither does the Declaration of Independence.

This is also an argument we tend to hear from conservatives. It posits the government as a “them” and rightly claims that our founders eschewed the idea of an authoritarian state. But what it misses is that they crafted an alternative in which the government was “us.” In a self-governing democracy, the power (or strength) lies with the people.

Once you understand that, the history of our country’s effort to “perfect our union” is defined by an expansion of who gets included in that “us.” As Obama said so often, it is about broadening the “we” of “we the people.”

…that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habits and convention. Unencumbered by what is, and ready to seize what ought to be…

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person.

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone.

I leave this reflection even more committed to the idea that diversity is, in fact, America’s strength. Our founders fell far short of living out the ideals they inscribed in documents. But forming a democracy that isn’t based on a long history of shared national origin requires us to value the differences everyone brings to the table. That has been the struggle of our country’s history and will continue until we all understand that our diversity is our strength.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.