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Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Now, in Context: Immigration
One evening, I was talking to my good Danish friend on Facebook (no, wooden shoes and a history of slave trading would be Dutch). We naturally started talking about politics, because that's what normal, friendly people do. Immigration is a huge issue in Denmark, and a moderate-conservative party in the country, known as the Danish People's Party, has used their decade long winning streak to make citizenship bids incredibly difficult – to the point where spouses of native born Danes are not granted citizenship for some time. Most of this strict legislation was put into place because of the large number of Arab and Turkish immigrants, a recent trend that has been only increasing with time.
What I said next was more a matter of national bragging, but it turned out to be my epiphany for the night. "In America, we're all immigrants." It's the corny sentence that has been written in tons of American history textbooks, but it's very true. The people that make up this nation today would not exist if not for the wave after wave of immigration to this country. Even archaeologists say that the two American continents were devoid of all mankind for the longest period of time (it takes a while to travel from Africa to the Americas on foot, or so I'm told). Everyone who came to this continent was definitively an immigrant.
Fast-forward thousands of years to now. We're having the same political discussion about immigration that we, as a country, have had since the original 13 colonies were started. At first, anyone not a puritan was banned. Then that loosened to anyone except Catholics (which took a hundred years to accept). In an industrial nation in the 1890s, new immigration laws were needed to keep the Irish and the Germans out, then the Chinese (which really meant any Asians coming into California). Then it was Jews and Eastern Europeans in the 1920s. I'm rather glad that was relaxed, otherwise I'd be writing this in Hungarian. Then specifically communists coming from Eastern Europe. Here we are, in 2011, and we've nearly run out of people to limit.
Granted, we still have all of Africa and Latin America to go through, but we've already started working on the latter. If there is any historic trend here, it's that these immigration "reforms" will be temporary, and the target group will become an integral part of American society. Can you look down your street and say there are no Irish or Germans? How about Eastern Europeans? If you're a part Native American reader, how about Europeans in general?
I'm not convinced that stopping or even hindering this ageless concept is the right one. It's a process that has outlasted any attempts to halt it – just look at the Ellis Island Museum for proof. The debate in today's politics should not focus on how to best prevent or limit the newest wave of immigrants, but rather how to best accommodate and integrate these newcomers. I'm not talking about assimilation here, but simply acceptance. Not only would we prove that we understand our own history, we would prove that we are working towards a healthy future for this country's society. To reword a bit of Greek mythology: all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again. What we can do differently this time is to show we are indeed progressing in human understanding. At the very least, it will make our political debate for the next couple decades more productive.
Generic Map found on Yahoo images, doctored with arrows by myself (the poor image quality wasn't enough of a tell?)
American Migration Patterns found here: http://news.illinois.edu/news/07/1025genetics.html
Political Cartoon from The History Project, University of California, Davis: http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/marchandslides.bak/PCD3636/images/IMG0103.jpg