Moral Debts: On Becoming and Being American

As an immigrant one can feel forced to absorb the history of the adopted country. Becoming a citizen should mean learning about the struggle over the racial identity of this country. As a country that calls itself a nation of immigrants, this means accelerating the browning of America and paying its moral debts.

Saber Khan
Jan 31, 2018 · 9 min read

A. Questions

Despite being born in Belgium to Bangladeshi parents there was little question that we would not stay in Europe. Like most countries in Europe and the world, it is incredibly difficult to immigrate and stay in Belgium. While it is possible to move and study or work if you are skilled, as we did in Saudi Arabia, it is incredibly difficult to move, live, build a family, and stay on our own terms. But the United States, through its mythology, culture, and laws, has always seemed different. It is one of the few large diverse democracy that is not built around a single ethnic group, a single culture, a single language. For example, the US still offers birthright citizenship, where newborns are offered citizenship, in an era where many countries have abandoned it. When one gets here, lives here, and learns a bit of the history one learns that the story is much more complicated. And what seemed like settled questions are being argued anew.

LBJ at Liberty Island before signing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (LBJ Library)

B. Liberty Island

Through most of its history, the United States pursued an explicitly racist immigration policy. The government’s policies sought to restrict immigration from Asia and Africa and helped to cement a white-majority country with an underclass of African American and Native populations. Those policies changed dramatically in 1965 when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The legislation eliminated race and national-origin restrictions, gave preference to family reunification and skills, and restricted immigration from the Western Hemisphere. The Act passed with overwhelming support in the House and the Senate. Before signing it LBJ made the following remarks:

This bill says simply that from this day forth those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationship to those already here.

This is a simple test, and it is a fair test. Those who can contribute most to this country — to its growth, to its strength, to its spirit — will be the first that are admitted to this land.

The fairness of this standard is so self-evident that we may well wonder that it has not always been applied. Yet the fact is that for over four decades the immigration policy of the United States has been twisted and has been distorted by the harsh injustice of the national origins quota system.

Under that system the ability of new immigrants to come to America depended upon the country of their birth. Only 3 countries were allowed to supply 70 percent of all the immigrants.

Families were kept apart because a husband or a wife or a child had been born in the wrong place.

Men of needed skill and talent were denied entrance because they came from southern or eastern Europe or from one of the developing continents.

This system violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.

It has been un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country.

Today, with my signature, this system is abolished.

We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.

The ideas in the Act, broadening access to US immigration, support for family reunification, and encouraging skilled immigrants to come, grew out of the Civil Rights movements and the Cold War. The Civil Rights movement had made the idea of the US as a white-identity nation a toxic idea that lost much of its mainstream political support. The US was heightening its disastrous engagement in Vietnam, seeking allies in the Cold War, and ready to view Asians, Africans, and other groups differently.

But baked into the new immigration system is a dangerous and toxic idea, that hard-working, highly skilled immigrant helping to make this country better and assimilating deserve to be here and others do not. This “Model Minority”, often highly skilled Asian immigrants, stood in contrast to the existing minorities already here, Black and Native, and others elsewhere who would not be welcome. The Model Minority Myth is damaging to people of color, Asian or otherwise, and helps perpetuate the myth of meritocracy and shield White Supremacy from criticism and dismantling.

C. Outside In

When I moved to the United States in 1996 with my family we landed in Catonsville, MD, a wealthy white suburb just outside Baltimore. My aunt, my mother’s sister, had come to the US with her husband a decade before thanks to the demand for doctors. She was able to sponsor my mother’s visa via the family reunification program. We would spend a year here while my father finished up his job in Saudi Arabia and looked for a job in the States. Hearing that the public schools were weak my parents enrolled the high school-aged offspring, my older sister and me, in private schools. I was sent to an all-boys college-prep Catholic high school located in the city. Until that year most of what I understood the US came from large Hollywood productions like Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, and Pulp Fiction. The school prided itself on its athletics program, religious instruction, and traditional perspective. The school was nestled in a bucolic campus in the West-side of Baltimore City. The neighborhood was largely African American while the school was overwhelmingly white.

The racial makeup of 21229 in 2016 (American Fact Finder)

D. Inside Out

In that same summer of 1996 when we moved to the US, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a cornerstone of the Republican Party’s Contract with America and fulfillment of Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Passing with bipartisan support, although both the Democratic senators from Maryland voted against it, the bill contained racist and sexist ideas crouched in the logic of “deserving poor”. For example, before this law, the federal government sought to protect mothers from having to work but now full-time mothering became a luxury for those that could afford it. The most toxic idea contained was the idea that people on welfare had become reliant and were no longer looking to work, an idea that had gained bipartisan support over past few decades. So the legislation placed limits on aid a person could receive, restricted eligibility rules, and lets states decide how to use the aid. For example, legal immigrants would now be excluded. The logic seemed to be that immigrants and the undeserving poor were a burden on productive members of society. In his signing statement Clinton stated many of his objections that should be fixed in future legislation:

First, while the Act preserves the national nutritional safety net, its cuts to the Food Stamp program are too deep. Among other things, the Act reinstates a maximum on the amount that can be deducted for shelter costs when determining a household’s eligibility for Food Stamps. This provision will disproportionately affect low-income families with children and high housing costs.

Second, I am deeply disappointed that this legislation would deny Federal assistance to legal immigrants and their children, and give States the option of doing the same. My Administration supports holding sponsors who bring immigrants into this country more responsible for their well-being. Legal immigrants and their children, however, should not be penalized if they become disabled and require medical assistance through no fault of their own. Neither should they be deprived of food stamp assistance without proper procedures or due regard for individual circumstances.

Those objections were not fixed, of course. An era of helping the poor in the United States was coming to an end. Now our government provides the least amount of help to the fewest number of people since 1971. Coincidentally, the poverty rate has not been meaningfully affected by the legislation while placing greater hardship and red-tape on those seeking support. In fact, the number of families with children living in poverty has increased twenty percent in the twenty years since the legislation.

Bill Clinton signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (Reveal News)

E. Two Zipcodes

The segregation that I saw in Baltimore in 1996, a poor black neighborhood in the city and rich white suburbs, is so common that they are taken as a given in most of the United States. They can seem like the natural outcome of tough but fair capitalist system that rewards those that work hard. Take the two zipcodes we landed on in 1996, 21229 in the Baltimore City where the school is and 21228, the suburb in Baltimore County where we lived. Demographically the two neighboring zipcodes are inverse reflections of each other, 21228 is 70% white and makes about $80,000 per household per year and 21229 is close to 80% black and makes $45,000 per household per year.

The racial makeup of 21228 in 2016 (American Fact Finder)

This dichotomy in the zipcodes here and elsewhere is a result of an active effort to segregate the races in Baltimore and elsewhere through actions of the city, state, and federal governments. As Richard Rothstein has shown in the Color of Law African Americans faced significant housing discrimination via federal, state, and local laws and policies. In 1910 Baltimore was one of the first to adopt an ordinance prohibiting African Americans from buying homes in blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa. This took a previously integrated city and over time made it segregated. Rothstein writes:

Exclusionary Zoning Ordinances could be, and have been, successful in keeping low-income African Americans, indeed all low-income families, out of middle-class neighborhoods.

But to create white-majority suburbs something greater was needed:

First, the government embarked on a scheme to persuade as many white families as possible to move from urban apartments to single-family suburban homes. Then, once suburbanization was under way, the government, with explicit racial intent, made it nearly impossible for African Americans to follow.

Short journey from 21229 to 21228

F. Choices

In 1996, as a sophomore in high school, all this seemed normal but one incident sticks out. Through the first few months of school, I knew to keep my mouth shut in class. One day in science class the teacher asked a question which seemed to stump everyone. I knew the answer and to help move the class along I raised my hand. When called on I said the word the teacher was looking for, aluminum. My classmates started laughing hysterically. I was confused and being new I did not know anyone who could explain what happened but I knew it was mean-spirited. Now I think it was a mix of my accent, the pronunciation, being new, being brown. If it were to happen now to me or my students I know I would act differently.

Since the US only allows “deserving” immigrants to move and stay, mostly middle-class, skilled, or those following family, many land in the suburbs and adopt a ‘suburban’ perspective on the country. But that perspective forgets or chooses not to remember how our immigration system was made less racist. It also forgets internal policies that continue to hurt communities of color via the legacy of housing discrimination or the denial of governmental aid. Continuing to broaden the base of immigrant beyond those that fit into a ‘deserving’ model and preserving family reunification offers a more equitable opportunity to becoming US citizens. Commitment to that goal combined with paying back our debt to communities of color is essential in our current political debate about immigration, welfare, and the future of this country. The choice before us is not just to reject the hate being spread but to create a vision for a more inclusive country.

Saber Khan

Written by

Educator. Email me at

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade