Immigration and the American Family

By APRIL LAWSON

American politics today is a battle over solidarity. What we ask of the nation is that it recognize and respond to our particular experience, our particular suffering. Immigrants ask for our solidarity, as do their ostensible political opponents, the white working class. The difficult truth is that we owe solidarity first to people who are already citizens or legal immigrants, and only secondarily to illegal immigrants.

A nation is a spiritual entity as well as a legal one. Citizenship properly understood is a status of soul as well as of legal personhood. Some days it seems like we have all but forgotten that the ties between citizens are based in more than statutes — but America is a communion.

Like a family, America has an obligation to solidarity with its members above and beyond other people. This has been badly breached of late, and we are reaping the consequences.

Think of it this way: there is a family. The parents have three biological children and are considering adopting a fourth, whom they are presently hosting as an exchange student. Two of the children, girls ages 12 and 19, are doing well. The 19 year old is getting straight A’s at an excellent college, and the 12 year old is normal and healthy, if a little boy-crazy. But the third child, 16, is having trouble. At this point he barely attends school, he has had a couple run-ins with the law, and he has a serious drug problem.

But instead of sitting down with him and asking what is wrong, the parents spend all their time and money trying to help the exchange student. Worse yet, the parents not only fail to provide the material help the troubled kid needs, but they — and the sisters — act like he is an embarrassment to the family. At best they ignore him; at worst, they shame him and call him names.

You can see where I’m going with this. The family has betrayed this kid, and he knows it. He is furious with them and deeply resentful of the exchange student. He lashes out at both — but the truth is, it doesn’t matter how he behaves; he had a right to expect unconditional care from his family. Sometimes that might take the form of tough love, but never contempt.

America has betrayed the white working class, and the white working class had a right to expect better of us. Not because they are superior to immigrants in any way, but because family comes first.

Interestingly, the tangible consequences of this fact are secondary. It may be that there is no economic competition between the white working class and undocumented immigrants, though there is some evidence to the contrary. The point is one of moral behavior: our solidarity, our extension of caring eyes and helping hands, must first be to citizens. After that, we can look beyond our borders and offer help and solace to others, but first we must take care of our own.

Part of patriotism means taking care of the American family; the other part is protecting our heritage. Immigration is a deeply meaningful action because America is a communion. Photos of newly minted citizens almost always feature hands over hearts and eyes filled with tears. Their love for our nation honors us.

But the nation they love is not a simply a compilation of all the people here. The way to honor immigrants’ devotion, and their new status as American citizens, is to carefully protect our particular cultural character.

There are two conclusions that flow from this which are often labeled “anti-immigrant.” But a perspective that is (sometimes) anti-immigration should not be automatically equated with anti-immigrant.

First, we should be wary of having higher levels of immigration, especially illegal immigration, than can quickly be assimilated. Every time America has experienced a period of massive immigration and the social dislocation that sometimes accompanies it, it has been followed by a period of low immigration that has enabled the country to bind itself from “Pluribus” into “Unum” again.

Given the historically high percentage of foreign-born people presently in America, we need at least a decade of low levels of immigration. Not because we are indifferent to foreigners’ suffering or unmoved by the dignity of those who wish to come, but because we can only add so many people at once and still preserve the basic nature of the country they admire.

Second, we need to ask of our new citizens that they do what it takes to join our culture fully. This means asking them to learn English. There has been racism in the movement to make English the official language, which is abhorrent. And we shouldn’t deny immigrants vital services because they don’t speak English. But we should not aim for a multilingual end state — not because immigrants are wrong to speak their mother tongue, but because English gives them access to our union.

Language is one of the most powerful unifiers in any culture. Concepts and worldviews are woven deep into syntax and words, and language is the access point for songs, books, and conversations in the public square of waiting rooms and sidewalks. In order to be wholly American, newcomers have to talk easily with their neighbors, and have a shot at reading the Constitution and The Grapes of Wrath. There is nothing wrong with immigrants speaking their native language at home, but we should discourage permanent enclaves where English is not the default language.

Immigration policy must be shaped by the high call of citizenship: to care first for even the most difficult members of our family, and to bring new members into our communion with the careful attention that will safeguard our national heritage — for the sake both of future generations of beloved family members and the immigrants who honor us with their allegiance.

April Lawson is a national leader at Better Angels. She works for The New York Times.

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