America the Generous: A Lost Story of Citizenship

America the Generous: A Lost Story of Citizenship (by Lawrence Downes, NYTimes - 5.27.07)

When people bicker over immigration, it’s often not long before the topic turns to My Family Came Here Legally. People whose roots go to Ellis Island or deeper like to say that. It fills their family trees with hard-working people who were poor but played by the rules, who got with the American program. It draws a bright line between upstanding Americans and those shadowy illegal workers hiding one big secret and who knows how many others.

It’s that line — that moral chasm between Us and Them, and between an idealized history and the muddled present — that informs the worst parts of the Senate immigration bill. It’s not only the provisions that create an incredibly grudging path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — charging them $5,000 apiece and requiring them to jump through pointless and punishing hoops that include a “touchback” trip home to Mexico, say, or Manila. It’s also the belief that immigrants with little to offer us but their toil and sweat should be brought in only as guest laborers, with no hope of becoming citizens, and that the paths to entry for immigrants’ relatives must be narrowed.

Congress has taken the week off from the debate, with members going home to districts that have already been inflamed by the loud and loony right, which has decided that the bill is that filthy thing “amnesty” and that the nation’s character would be defiled if it ever forgave illegal immigrants for coming here to do our worst jobs, or let too many more people in to put down roots. You could call that view unkind and uncharitable. You could also call it unwise, given economic realities.

I would add un-American.


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