There’s been a great deal of discussion about a new Pew Research Center report confirming that migrants from Asian countries now outnumber those from Latin America. The report uses broad brushstrokes to paint a picture of Asian migrants as a model minority, thus ignoring the very real challenges many Asian American communities face in terms of educational attainment, employment, immigration status, health access, and so forth. Nevertheless, it’s no coincidence that US economic growth in the Information Age, culminating in the dot-com boom on the 1990s, accompanied a rapid expansion in Asian migration, as well as Latin American migration.
There were only 500,000 immigrants from Asian countries in 1960, but 2.5 million in 1980. Thanks in part to the Immigration Act of 1990 the number of immigrants from Asian countries reached nearly 11 million by 2009. Thanks in part to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, immigrants from Latin American countries totaled nearly 8.5 million in 1990, reaching 16 million by 2000, and 21 million by 2010. 81% of economists surveyed believe that the rates of immigration experienced in the late 20th Century (both documented and undocumented) had “very favorable effects” on economic growth, US economic health and wellbeing.
The net positive effect of immigration, writ large, is evidenced by data on nonprofit, military, public sector, and international service, national economic growth, direct and speculative investment, scholarship, research, innovation, intellectual proprietorship, durable and disposable goods production, exportation, consumption, and most importantly entrepreneurial activity in small business settings, in the virtual world, and even in multinational settings. A fact corroborated most recently by Forbes Magazine’s finding that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and/or their children.
Nevertheless, immigrants from Asia and Latin America have not been welcomed by those who believe “American” is synonymous with “white,” and those of us who do not believe American identity is contingent on race or ethnicity have collided with jarring hostility and unprecedented opposition.
Former Presidential adviser, as well as Harvard and Columbia University professor Samuel P. Huntington, published a text in 2004, whose sole purpose was to paint Latinos as a threat to America’s national identity. Without apology or hesitation he argues that Latino immigrants are not as culturally American as those who came before. Although institutionalized racial profiling has been rejected by a double-digit number of states, it has been embraced by even more. Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s SB 1070, “papers please” policies will remain Constitutional until their implementation unduly harms and burdens enough American citizens from communities of color to justify their modification.
Every single time a law enforcement officer encounters someone he or she deems worthy of questioning, that officer will be entrusted to make a determination on that individual’s American identity. Welcome to the world where 96 year-old, former Arizona Governor, Mexican American, Raul Hector Castro, has already been detained three times.
Quite plainly, the disdain and antipathy felt toward immigrants of color is so intense that Mitt Romney captured his party’s nomination by moving to the right of all other GOP candidates on the issue of immigration. This despite the fact that President Obama doubled the number of border patrol agents George W. Bush ordered to the US-Mexico border, and set an all-time high deportation record of 400,000 human beings annually, 22% of whom have US-born children.
The racism President Obama has been forced to confront as the first person of color to lead the Executive branch is well documented. But is incredibly important to note that he has only been interrupted twice while delivering remarks to the American people, and both have involved a discussion of this nation’s treatment of immigrants.
- During an address to Congress, President Obama was explaining how the Affordable Care Act would not extend coverage to undocumented immigrants, when he found himself interrupted by Joe Wilson shouting, “You lie!”
- During a Rose Garden address, President Obama was explaining his Administration’s decision to halt deportations of DREAM Act eligible undocumented youth, when he found himself interrupted by Neil Munro shouting, “Why do you favor foreigners over Americans?”
The aggression and animus found in the reactions to Time Magazine’s cover story, “We Are Americans, Just Not Legally” is disgusting and unfounded. It tries to make the case for a false litmus test for American identity.
Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “The whole life of an American is passed like a game of chance, a revolutionary crisis, or a battle… The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
It’s not that the United States is the only nation in which tremendous change can be achieved in a short period of time. Certainly anyone who belongs to this generation baptized by the democratization self-determination of former Soviet-bloc nations, and coming of age in last year’s Arab Spring, knows that the rising tide of change is quite a force to be reckoned with.
But the America and Americans that De Tocqueville describes whose origins are largely British, (and live in a society where Native Americans and African Americans are marginalized) are the mirror image of Americans today whose family trees begin in Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Philippines, India, China, or Korea.
What is fundamentally paramount to understand is that migrants (both those willing to journey from one part of the US to another, and those willing to travel from another country to the US) are the reason there is no dilution of the American spirit De Tocqueville documented. There is no Harlem Renaissance without the Great Migration; no rise of Dartmouth College as the nation’s (back to back to back) leader in undergraduate education without the over 700 Native American students from over 200 different tribes willing to uproot and come of age in Hanover, New Hampshire. And no future for the United States as the world’s foremost superpower in the 21st Century without continued immigration from all corners of the world.
The United States of America, began with a 3/5 Compromise, and a naturalization policy that explicitly made whites of “good moral character” citizens and withheld all of the rights and privileges of citizenship to free blacks, Native Americans, and the American-born children of nonwhite residents. But America repaired herself thanks to her heroes.
The Tuskegee Airmen and the 442nd Infantry Regiment were such American heroes. Despite the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African Americans lived in a segregated country as second-class citizens. Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps and abide by curfews despite the best efforts of Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu to overturn Executive Order 9066.
They didn’t fight because they had a set of rights and privileges they were protecting. They fought because they were willing to go out on a limb and bet that undesirable realities could change through the principles by which America repairs her faults. But they didn’t set out to be martyrs. And they didn’t fight with the expectation that liberty and justice for all would be realized in the next world.
They went all-in on the notion that what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” could be cashed in within one generation—their children were meant to reach the promised land, or at least see it from the mountaintop.
To the American hero, the toil of any journey is justified by the reward of principled pragmatism. Risks are known, yet they do not dissuade action. And not because of a rush of emotion, careless impulsivity, or a blind loyalty to exalted individuals, but because of deified notions of equality, fairness and freedom—liberty and justice for all.
By this standard, not only are young men and women who have organized for their rights under the “undocumented and unafraid” rallying cry, “Americans in every way, except for on paper.” They are American heroes. And so are their family members.
Those who embarked on journeys from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East to the United States, in the face of anti-immigrant hostility, in an increasingly violent, politically and economically uncertain world, did not take part in a transactional exchange. Moving to the United States is not like buying into a timeshare. To even insinuate that the life of an immigrant is that of a opportunistic tourist seeking a cushy place to overstay his or her welcome, ignores the facts of history, the forces of acculturation, Americanization, and De Tocqueville’s most astute observation about the American spirit:
“Two things in America are astonishing: the changeableness of most human behavior and the strange stability of certain principles. Men are constantly on the move, but the spirit of humanity seems almost unmoved.”
American heroes are unwilling and unable to turn back once their journey has begun. Their point of no return isn’t marked by the moment in which they come to terms with the fact that their strength brings weakness during an epic voyage home, (like Odysseus, the Aristotelian tragic hero of ancient Europe) or when their personal demise is guaranteed (like the many labeled martyrs who forge elements of tragedy into the mettle of inspiring peoples who populate this diverse world).
There is something distinctly American about the transformation our heroes undertake. Whether examining historical figures, or pop culture characters like Spiderman, and Katniss Everdeen, there’s no going home, per se, because the hero changes, and home changes. But whether Spiderman’s alter ego is that of white, Peter Parker, or Afro-Latino, Miles Morales, his heroism is unaltered, and his American identity—his Americanness—is unchanged.
Shot at by the Mexican government when a student, deported from the United States after giving birth to me, my mother was my hero—my Katniss Everdeen—long before she was allowed to become a naturalized US citizen. My American identity—my Americanness—is rooted in the enthusiasm for America’s principles, and belief in the American spirit of humanity, she demonstrated during my formative years.
This is what the anti-immigrant and Tea Party crowds are unable or unwilling to see. To be an American has never required citizenship, and the greatest American patriots have always been those who professors Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres have dubbed miner’s canaries—willing to venture forth into a space that is neither illuminated nor guaranteed to afford the very basics needed to survive.