Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Be Free

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I have an unpopular opinion on immigration and refugees. I don’t believe there should be any such thing as illegal immigrants–we welcome all. Refugees? We’ll take them all. Yes, I recognize this would cause problems. All kinds of problems. I also strongly believe we are perfectly capable and intelligent and can figure it out. Don’t I know that “terrorists” will get in? Of course I do; of course they will. They’re getting in anyway and nothing–let me say that again forcefully–NOTHING will prevent a determined person bent on violence from getting in. To my mind, this is the price of a free society.

Immigration to the US has always been contentious. In the early years of our nation, the residency requirement for citizenship was raised and lowered several times, ranging from 2 years to 14. Xenophobia is widely considered to be the driving reason for raising the amount of time needed to become a citizen. The first exclusionary immigration law came in 1875 with the Page Act, banning the ‘landing’ of immigrants from China, Japan or any Oriental country. Ostensibly, this was to prevent prostitution, but was also in reaction to an unemployment problem and the availability of cheap Chinese labor after the completion of the trans-continental railroad. Embarrassingly, these bans were not specifically set aside until the mid-20th century.

Throughout the remainder of the 19th and all of the 20th centuries, adjustments were made. Allotments set, always favoring northern European immigrants. Literacy requirements were set. Bans on physical and mental disabilities were put in place in the late 1800s and were strengthened until the late 20th century. The common denominator behind all of the changes is economic. During times of unemployment, the restrictions tightened. During World War II, when men were off fighting, the US opened the borders with Mexico to bring in men to work the fields. We have had bans on political ideals twice–anarchists and Communists.

To my mind, the underlying factor here is fear. Fear of economic distress. For politicians, fear of being blamed for hardships. Fear that ideas might take root and sully our nation in some way. I reject this fear. Embrace the differences. We can all learn from each other. Think of the incredible cultural gifts America has received from every country in the world. Why can’t we remember that when we have economic downturns? In the face of problems, we have always done better when we set aside differences and work together. Always. We seem to be able to get this at a community level, but not much larger. It seems to become too abstract, too impersonal. What can we do to make broader, national policies personal? I don’t know the answer. But I firmly believe we should seek it. If we want immigrants to be tax paying citizens, decriminalize living here. Welcome new citizens. Encourage  a love for their new nation.

Refugees are similar–I cannot imagine being in a situation so horrible that fleeing with nothing is the best option. To then face discrimination and horror in a sheltering nation is unthinkable. Refugees are guests and should be treated accordingly. We should open our best for refugees. Most will want to return to their own country when it is safe to do so. Some will stay, sure, but most will not. What kind of memories do we want them to have of the US? Are we not discouraging radicalization by being a welcoming host rather than rude?  To me this is logical.  What can we do to encourage this? What about tax breaks for families who host refugees?

I love my country. I have had the opportunity to live overseas and to visit several countries and I believe with all my heart that the US is the best. But we have a lot to learn and always have room for improvement. This is an area we could and should improve. Challenge your elected officials to find creative solutions. We can all benefit.

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