In the red-hot debate over immigration, myth too often takes the place of truth. It is easier to rouse fears than it is to find common ground. It is time to step back, take a deep breath and reflect before we react.
The truth is often distorted in ways that feed our divisions. For example, many contrast this generation of immigration with the Europeans who came at the beginning of the last century. That generation, we are told, came legally, whereas this generation of immigrants is coming illegally. That generation learned the language, whereas this one is writing the National Anthem in Spanish.
Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter, writes about her Irish family that came over on the boat: "They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come … . They had to get through Ellis Island, get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge."
But as Michael Powell of the Washington Post reports, this is mostly nonsense. Until 1918, the U.S. didn't even require passports — the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals merely had to provide their identity and find a friend to vouch for them. Customs officials tried to weed out the lunatic or those infected with disease or "anarchism." The Mexican-U.S. border was then unguarded and crossed freely. When finally passed, immigrant quotas exempted Northern Europeans and Mexicans, even then imported by employers seeking cheap labor.
And all the same fears that exist now existed then. There was a huge backlash against German, Irish and Italian immigrants. White Protestant reformers warned that they weren't learning English, that they were drunks, dissolute, lazy. Commentators warned of the "mongrelization" of the "White race." Conservatives warned that immigrants were importing European class warfare into America.
All those fears turned out to be unfounded. The immigrants by and large were immensely hard-working. They learned English and assimilated. Their energy helped fuel America's rise in the 20th century. And the fears this time are likely to be similarly unfounded. The children of today's immigrants are learning English. The newcomers are by and large hard-working. If they are competing at low wages now, they are also at the center of drives to raise the minimum wage and to organize low-paid workers.
In the current atmosphere, we ignore the many contradictions of our immigration policy. Cuban immigrants are invited into America, welcomed and subsidized. They are pawns in our continuing Cold War face-off with Fidel Castro. Immigrants from neighboring Haiti are locked out and shipped back.
Vigilantes hunt immigrants coming over the Mexican border. But the Canadian border is basically unguarded, and undocumented immigrants from Canada raise no interest and are never called "illegals." Yet, so far as we know, the terrorists coming over the border have come through Canada, not through Mexico.
Even as the vigilantes organize to keep undocumented workers out, employers organize to bring them in. They lobby for guest-worker programs, for seasonal exemptions for farm workers, for exemptions for high-tech workers. Or they just routinely hire undocumented workers as a source of cheap labor.
The U.S. military provides an accelerated path to citizenship for legal permanent residents who can present a green card at enlistment. There are some 37,500 foreign nationals from 200 countries in the active duty and reserve forces. Of those, 71 have died in Iraq; three in Afghanistan. Non-citizens perform well; they also tend to serve longer than citizens do. And the military recognizes the value it gets from having many languages available to tap.
This is an old tradition. In the Civil War, some 20 percent of the Union forces were not citizens; many were signed up directly off the boat. The second U.S. soldier who died under fire in the Iraq War had entered the U.S. illegally. With the Army and Marines having difficulty meeting their recruitment goals, more and more conservatives call for letting undocumented immigrants gain citizenship by agreeing to serve.
We need comprehensive immigration reform to remove the discrimination that embraces Europeans and excludes Africans, or hunts Mexicans and hugs Canadians. But we should remember that America is a nation of immigrants — that's a fact, not a legend.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.