Immigration

Pro Immigration? Then Support All Who Came Here

Celebrating Americans by choice needn't also disparage Americans by birth.

She got here in 1886.

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP -- Getty Images

Here’s a helpful hint for my fellow immigration enthusiasts: Stop dissing Americans whose ancestors got here before yours.

It’s a common trope: “Immigrants make America great.” You can buy a T-shirt that says it. It sounds like a happy celebration of Americans by choice. But it quickly becomes a way to disparage Americans by birth.

Take the recent New York Times column by Bret Stephens titled “Only Mass Deportation Can Save America.” An attempt at Swiftian satire, it was a divisive exercise in identity politics. Mustering assorted aggregate statistics, the article made an extended argument for the superiority of immigrants over those “Americans whose families have been in this country for a few generations. Complacent, entitled and often shockingly ignorant on basic points of American law and history, they are the stagnant pool in which our national prospects risk drowning.”

It was clever, but anything but persuasive. Coming from the self-described child of immigrants who grew up abroad, it actively damaged the immigrant cause.

Now, I should be a sympathetic audience. I support substantially higher legal immigration levels, appreciate the contributions of those here illegally, and back efforts to regularize the status of undocumented workers and the children they brought with them. I detest Donald Trump. I liked Bret Stephens when we met.

But here’s the problem. The Swiftian part of the column was the idea of mass deportation. (I get it -- you don’t really want to eat Irish babies or deport their great-grandchildren.) The rest of the comparison, however, was serious: People like Stephens and his family are good for America, it argued. People like me and mine are a drain.

Like most southerners, black and white, I don’t take kindly to disrespect. Although I’m hardly a hillbilly, that argument got my dander up.

Who is this prep-school-educated child of a high-level corporate executive to condemn as “complacent” and “entitled” the children of postal workers and engineers, schoolteachers and stock clerks? How can he be so ignorant and unappreciative of the innumerable small contributions that built the country that he now calls home? Who is he to tell the descendants of slaves and indentured servants that they don’t belong here because they don’t win enough science prizes? Where was he when I was sweltering through mediocre South Carolina public schools? 1

If that was my reaction, imagine how people who already have their doubts about large-scale immigration would respond -- especially those with deep American roots. A child of privilege lecturing his fellow Americans on how they don’t deserve to live here is a prescription for Trumpian uprisings. And Stephens is hardly alone. Protected by the canopy of satire, he’s just more blatant about his disastrous message.

As I wrote long ago, “Americans care, of course, about their economic interests. But they care first about their identities. … If voters feel personally attacked -- because they are Latinos, or working women, or housewives, or evangelical Christians, or gays -- they will bolt the party that serves their economic interests.” 2 Or, given the opportunity, back a presidential candidate who promises to blow it up.

So, fellow immigration supporters, please think about the audience you need to persuade -- not to mention the cultural health of the nation--and give them more positive message: The United States, the country you and your ancestors built, the country you love, is so great that people want to come here from all over the world. They cross deserts and oceans, leave their homes and families, struggle to communicate in a strange language and understand strange customs because America is special. We have so many immigrants not because we’re weak and they’re invaders but because we’re wonderful and they want to join us. Immigration isn’t a betrayal of American identity. It’s a vote of confidence.

This message isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But it’s fundamentally sound. And it’s a much more effective than telling most Americans that you’re better than they are and want to take their country away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Not born yet, but it’s a rhetorical question.

  2. That 1998 column foresaw the technology community’s dramatic shift to the Democrats.

To contact the author of this story:
Virginia Postrel at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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