Why America’s Opposition to Immigration is Un-American
By most standards, Eric Balderas would be considered a model citizen. After graduating high school as class valedictorian, Balderas was admitted to Harvard on a full-ride scholarship to study molecular biology, with hopes of pursuing a career in cancer research. Yet the 19-year-old recently found himself detained and handcuffed by government agents, threatened with having his scholarships revoked and his life turned upside down.
He had broken the law.
What sinister act had Balderas committed, and who were his victims? Was he accused of fraud, theft, or perhaps assault against a fellow citizen? No, Balderas’ crime was that he was not a citizen. Having crossed the border from Mexico with his mother at age four, he had been living in fugitive status for most of his life without realizing it. For all his hard work and achievement, he was ultimately confronted with the prospect of deportation.
Though Eric Balderas is in many ways exceptional, his case is not an unfortunate misunderstanding, an instance of a law incriminating someone it wasn’t intended to. According to the United States government, Balderas is equally as guilty as the hundreds of thousands of others deported each year for being inside the nation’s borders without authorization, and the millions more who haven’t yet been caught.
Thus, we’re confronted with a disconcerting reality: our government, on the premise of upholding the rule of law, finds it necessary to handcuff and threaten to upend the life of an aspiring cancer researcher who embodies the American work ethic and American dream. Why?
Immigration and the controversy it inspires are nothing new. Long before America was established, immigration was contested and restrictions were enforced. As early as the mid-1600s, colonial officials took measures to prevent the settlement of Quakers, who were then considered to have “accursed” beliefs. Over the nation’s history, other groups restricted from entering the country have included Catholics, single women, Chinese, Irish, Japanese, all Asians, and even all “non-white” people. The reasons justifying such restrictions have been equally diverse: they’ve included fears of the “morally corrupting” influence of immigrants on society, a desire for social homogeneity, attitudes toward various classes of immigrants as inferior or undesirable, and a view of immigrants as economic parasites.
From this long, varied line of sentiments, arguments,and policies, a common thread emerges: an emphasis on classifying people into groups. People are narrowly viewed as Christian or non-Christian, Anglo-Saxon or “non-white”, native-born or foreign, citizen or non-citizen, “legal” or “illegal” – and their group identity becomes the standard by which their worthiness to immigrate is judged. Put explicitly, the rule is: If you’re part of the right group, you’ll be let in; if not, you’ll be kept out.
Many have come to view America’s past treatment of immigrants as marred by old prejudices that have finally been put behind us. To be sure, the kind of raw racism that a century ago motivated opponents of Chinese and other immigrants (who were often victims of violent attack and discriminatory legislation) is fortunately rare today. But in fact, the “us-versus-them” mentality that gave rise to such overt forms of racism has not disappeared; it’s merely shifted to a more general, tacit preoccupation with group identity.
Eric Balderas’ predicament bears witness to this fact: on the sole basis of his birth in Mexico, he is legally barred from living, working, or going to school in the United States without the permission of the federal government. Had he been born within U.S. borders, he would face no such scrutiny.
We ought to be asking: why? Why is it that a person must be assigned a category and be judged by his peers and the law differently on that basis? Why is it that if Balderas had lived exactly the same life, with the same mother, going to the same school, pursuing the same goals, but had been born in Texas, he would be considered an exemplary citizen both in the eyes of the law and his fellow Americans–truly, one of “us”? Why does America instead consider him one of “them,” with the suspicion–and often, the handcuffs–that this entails?
There are no good answers to such questions, no legitimate justifications. On some level, many people understand this. That’s why so many can look at a case like Eric Balderas’ and recognize that something is definitely wrong: it’s his merit as an individual that we should regard as important, not the place he happened to come from 15 years ago.
As Americans, we’re in a unique position to understand this point. In seeking to establish this country, America’s Founders rejected the long-entrenched attitude that a man ought to be viewed as a faceless, insignificant member of society dutifully toiling for the benefit of the king or nation. Rather, they eloquently argued that every person ought to be able to pursue his own life and seek his own happiness, and to interact with one another voluntarily on that basis. This represented a new outlook on human nature, one that demanded men be judged and treated as individuals and not simply as part of a tribe, nation, or other collective. In America, for the first time in history, the individual was able to exist on his own terms and merits–regardless of society’s desires to the contrary.
To a large extent, that notion of individualism is still alive in America and still inspires the immigrants coming here, but it’s an idea increasingly under attack. Just consider: in the recent census, the government was equally as (if not more) concerned with our racial category as with our age or place of residence. In the media and elsewhere, commentators often speak in terms like “Black America,” “the Hispanic vote,” “the interests of the middle class,” effectively lumping disparate people together as if their individual differences, opinions, and judgments were of little consequence. Politicians argue about the “rights” of the uninsured, of business owners, of consumers, of the poor or middle class, as if a person’s rights were not the inalienable individual rights that the Founders advocated, but special privileges conferred through group association.
The result is tragic. Many immigrants set out for an America known as the birthplace of individualism, as a place where a man is judged by his work and the content of his character—only to be met with a startling reaction: “you’re not welcome here.” They encounter an America that first asks where they were born, and then proceeds to grant or deny, by collective consensus, permission to live, work, or seek an education within its borders. Consequently, we continue to keep hard-working, motivated people from achieving their full potential here either by keeping them out altogether, or by treating them like fugitive criminals when they attempt to come here anyway.
It’s true that Eric Balderas wasn’t born here, but who cares? Why should that determine whether he is allowed to live here? A truly American immigration system would be an individualistic one, in which anyone would be free to come here to live, to work, and to be happy, barring only those known criminals or carriers of infectious diseases who represent a clear threat to those around them. There would be no years-long waits for special permission to enter, no arbitrary quotas, no deportation of people who have committed no legitimate crime–only a system designed to assist newcomers in properly participating in the country they’ve sought out for good reason.
Such a system would not only be morally proper, but also eminently practical. Immigrants are able to express and realize their productive and creative capacity here in a way that is only possible in a free country. One need only peruse a list of famous immigrants–from Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Einstein, to the founding members of Google and Intel–to realize how much the country, and the world, has benefited from immigration. Whether one looks at science, arts, technology, entertainment, or any of the less glamorous areas of economic activity, the immense contribution of immigrants is clear.
Before we can effectively address any of the practical challenges of fixing the immigration system, we must first confront the growing trend toward collective judgment that clouds our thinking on the issue. Only once the nature of individualism is understood and its value reaffirmed will we be able to implement an approach to immigration in which upholding the law and doing the right thing are one in the same, and in which productive, energetic immigrants are welcomed and celebrated as fully American.
Noah Stahl received his BS in Computer Engineering and MS in Information Assurance from Iowa State University. He currently works as an information security engineer in Tampa, Florida.