It Never Should Have Come to This

Remains of Berlin wall, detail of old concrete wall, Germany

My family, on both parental lines of ancestry, have been in the United States for generations, and some of them for centuries. Still, the current immigration tension hits home with me. All my family were immigrants (unless I have some Native American blood in my ancestral lines, though I am not aware of any).

We live in a nation described as a “Melting Pot”. Various streams of immigration have occurred over the relatively short history of colonization that characterizes our past. The English, the Spanish, the French were the first streams of immigrants. At various times the Irish, the Chinese, the Italian, the German, the Puerto Rican, the Vietnamese, the Mexican and many other people groups have added to that stream.

I am neither a blind patriot nor a self-loathing radical when it comes to this nation’s history. This is no time for naked idealism. Our past indiscretions in the way we treated Native Americans shouldn’t be brushed under the rug, but the great Democratic experiment that has been a shining city on a hill to the world should not be discounted either.

The truth is nuanced. The truth is messy. Idealists doesn’t necessarily create falsehoods (though sometimes they do), but they emphasize the truth that serves them and ignore the truth that doesn’t. We should not be blind to any portion of the truth. As a wise man once said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” (or something like that).

The aspects of that experiment that shine a light in the world include the bedrock value of freedom and a welcoming attitude toward the streams of foreigners who have come here to make a better life. This has been a land of opportunity, if not always perfectly available to all, that is still exemplary in the world despite its warts…. until recently.

Humanity is messy, like the truth of our history. Our only hope is in doing better in the future. I fear, though, that we are not only heading backward; we are losing grip on those distinctive values that might make up for our faults. We are on the verge of collapsing back into ourselves.

November 9, 2019, marked 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. Reagan’s iconic words still ring loud and clear in the halls of history … if we care to remember them: “Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Ronald Reagan, of course, was the conservative icon of his generation, but his conservatism was guided by humanity, compassion, the value of freedom and that welcoming spirit that has characterized most of the history of this country. In his farewell address from the White House Oval Office, Reagan talked about the “shining city on a hill” symbolism for the United States, and he said this:

“It is a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace. A city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And, if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

“If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with a will and the heart to get here.”

The last amnesty for immigrants was signed by Ronald Reagan. He championed grace for immigrants living here already, while calling for tightening security at the border. The amnesty was granted, but the border security measures were ignored.

These last several years, Americans have engaged in a battle over building our own wall. Amnesty is no longer a value that conservatives seem willing to consider. Conservatives push for security with no amnesty. Existing laws are being tightened, and enforcement is being stepped up. And real people are being caught in the noose.

I recently met a young woman who came here with her parents when she was an infant. She wasn’t born here. she is “undocumented”.

She told me she has always felt the need to work harder than her peers because of the keen awareness of her status, fear of being deported and knowledge that she wouldn’t qualify for any financial aid. She can’t even file a FAFSA form, let alone receive help (contrary to what many seem to believe).

She graduated from high school in three (3) years. She is on pace to graduate from college in three (3) years with a 4.0 grade point average. She has already taken the LAST (Law School Entrance Exam) and scored very high. She plans to go to law school.

She is a model citizen in every way, except she isn’t a citizen. She didn’t choose to come to this country, but she has been here all her life. The United States is all she knows. She has no memory of the country of her origin.

She is protected right now by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), but DACA is on the chopping block. In this war on immigrants, President Trump signed an executive order repealing President Obama’s executive order (that allowed “unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the U. S. as children, to live and work in the United States” legally) that would effectively terminate DACA.

If DACA is terminated, this young woman, who has never known anything but the freedom and the values of the United States, will be subject to immediate deportation to a country that is foreign to her. She has no part in her coming or going. She is a pawn in a political war. There is nothing she can do change her fate. It rests now in the US Supreme Court’s hands.

As a recent columnist said, “It never should have come to this.

We can blame Donald Trump for the Draconian executive order he signed. We can blame Congress for doing absolutely nothing about the issue that has festered for years.

Our immigration system has been in need of an overhaul since before Ronald Reagan’s time. The Clinton legislation in 1994 only exasperated the problem.

In all of this, I want to ask, who are we? What kind of people are we?

At this moment, the lives of 700,000 children and young adults who had no say in their present plight are hanging in the balance. Real lives are stake as we play politics on the issue of immigration. When things get political, we fail to see the faces of real people who will be affected by our games.

The day that Ronald Reagan left office, he gave us “one final thought”: “An observation about the country I love.” And this is what he said:

“It was stated best in a letter I received not long ago. A man wrote me and said: `You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.’

Yes, the torch of Lady Liberty symbolizes our freedom and represents our heritage, the compact with our parents, our grandparents, and our ancestors. It is that lady who gives us our great and special place in the world. For it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond. Other countries may seek to compete with us; but in one vital area, as a beacon of freedom and opportunity that draws the people of the world, no country on Earth comes close.

This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so we continuously renew and enrich our nation. While other countries cling to the stale past, here in America we breathe life into dreams. We create the future, and the world follows us into tomorrow. Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

I’m afraid that Ronald Reagan’s prophetic words may prove true if we don’t change course. Our leadership in the world is teetering on the edge. Worse yet, we are poised to do harm to the very kind of people that have made this country what it is – those teeming shores and streams of immigrants who have made the United States a great Melting Pot, a Shining City on a Hill.

We are turning our back on our own history. We are turning our back on the very kind of people that made the United States great. Worse yet, we are poised to crush the lives of exemplary people like the young woman I recently met. I hope this is not what we have become.

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