“Every man,” declared American writer and editor Max Lerner in the 1950s, “has two countries — his own, and America.” A Russian émigré who landed in the US in 1907 as a boy of five, Lerner was not being arrogant. He was simply overstating the truth in a quintessentially American way: Immigration lines have consistently been thousands deep in the 20th century and show little signs of thinning in this one.
At least so far in the ‘Asian Century’, America is still the promised land for millions around the world. And humility is an un-American virtue, if a virtue at all.
Yet, it is this very American-ness that has been remaking the “indispensable nation” in unexpected ways over the past three decades, irrevocably altering its demography and placing a large burden on the welfare system in a tough economy.
This year alone, thousands of unaccompanied children — 52,000 of them so far — from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have crossed into the US over the Mexican border, a perilous 1,000-mile journey through unforgiving deserts. They are being driven by gang and drug-related violence at home and the promise of being able to join relatives in the US. Thousands more have made the journey in their mothers’ arms.
Overwhelmed immigration authorities have been left scrambling for a response. The unaccompanied children are being housed in shelters with help from charities while the mothers are being dropped off at the bus station with tickets to relatives’ homes.
US President Barack Obama has declared a “humanitarian crisis” and asked Congress for $2 billion to help process the children through the system faster. There has been no talk of a “refugee crisis”, though. Clearly, the new arrivals came to stay. And stay they will, protected by a 2008 US law that says children cannot be deported but must be “held humanely” till they can be released to a “family member in this country”.
This law, which was aimed at combating human trafficking, was passed before President Obama took office but has been woven — in rumours swirling through Central America — with Obama’s push to grant legal status to children already in the US illegally.
These children, known as “Dreamers” after an acronym of an Act pushed through the Upper House of Congress by Obama’s Democrats last year, were brought in by their illegal immigrant parents, sometimes as infants.
Numbering about 1.5 million, these teenagers know no other home than the US. Last year, Obama unveiled a plan to grant them legal status under the so-called DREAM Act, which has now become the basis for the rumours circulating through Central America.
The Act has no chance of becoming law any time soon because Republicans, who control the Lower House, are opposed to it.
However, at its core, the problem lies not in partisan politics but in the very nature of the American identity as a nation of immigrants and a moral refuge. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the legend on the Statue of Liberty in New York. First built to commemorate the American civil war, the statue was widely used as a symbol to attract immigrants in the early 20th century.
In theory, Lady Liberty’s invitation to the world’s poor and huddled masses will stand until America itself stands, and is at the centre of the inability of America’s politicians to address a problem that other nations solved at their very founding — as soon as they drew their borders. No other country in the world has such a porous border, except in times of civil war.
Unlike other countries though, America was founded by immigrants with certain clear beliefs. It had no history before it was created, entirely an expression of certain ideas of freedom that later grew into what is called “American exceptionalism”.
Of course, the irony of a Constitution that proclaimed every man equal and free to pursue happiness while enslaving African Americans is inescapable, but America’s strength lies in its ability to manage contradictions. After all, Obama, the first African-American president, is serving his second term at the White House, even if there is “gridlock in Washington” and the country is more divided than it probably ever has been.
Among other things, one badge of America’s exceptionalism is the idea of a nation born out of a Judeo-Christian idea of morality that emphasised charity. The earliest evidence of this idea is found in 1630, by Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop, who compared the new community to a “city upon a hill”, a reference to a phrase contained in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.
This phrase was last invoked most famously by former president Ronald Reagan, a Republican who enabled citizenship for millions of Hispanic illegal immigrants and their families in 1986. It is the one stain on Reagan, a modern Republican icon. Some Republicans even blame the recent defeats to Obama on this “amnesty” because most Hispanic voters gravitate naturally towards the Democrats. In 2012, just over 70 percent of the Hispanic vote went to Obama.
Clearly, this is not lost on the Democrats. In 2014, it is Democrats who are pushing for legalisation. They are blaming Republicans in the Lower House for not putting the Senate legislation to vote. Not so fast, say the Republicans, who seem to have learnt from Reagan’s mistake. Republicans now want to seal the border before they vote on “comprehensive immigration legislation”, a catchall phrase that means different things to different people.
But though on opposite sides of the immigration question, both sides frame the issues in similar language. Democrat and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during a visit to the Texas-Mexico border on 28 June, evoked familiar religious themes.
“If you believe as we do that every child, every person has a spark of divinity in them, and is therefore worthy of respect — what we saw in those rooms was (a) dazzling, sparkling, array of god’s children, worthy of respect.”
Pelosi urged the people to use the crisis as an “opportunity to show who we are as Americans, that we do respect people for their dignity and worth”.
This commitment to the “American ideal” does reflect popular will, though it is unclear in what measure. A recent Brookings Institution poll has shown that Americans are largely in favour (62 percent) of providing a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants after they meet certain requirements. But they are divided on having illegal immigrants as neighbours.
Residents of a small farming town in Virginia forced the US government to abort plans to house hundreds of the unaccompanied immigrant children in the dormitories of a local college. They said they were concerned about safety issues.
In New York, a Democratic lawmaker in Long Island, one of five locations in the state considered for housing the children, protested against the move. From elsewhere too, there have been rumblings against housing these children within communities.
These social pressures will probably only grow over time, especially if the economy continues to stutter. The demographic changes will certainly accelerate. Migrants from Central and South America have grown to 53 million in 2012, a 50 percent increase since just 2000 and nearly six times their population in 1970, according to the US Census Bureau. More than 12 million of them are in the US illegally.
The bureau predicts that the US will cease to be a majority white country by 2042, when Americans of European stock will comprise 47 percent of the population.
Most population growth is being driven by minorities. Results from the 2010 Census showed that racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 91.7 percent of the nation’s total growth since 2000. Most of that increase, of 56 percent, was due to Hispanics. Non- Hispanic whites, though still a majority of the nation’s population, accounted for only 8.3 percent of its growth over the decade — a total increase of only 192,000.
Hispanics are also more than a quarter of the nation’s youngest residents, accounting for 26.3 percent of the population younger than age 1. Among other major non-Hispanic groups, the share for whites is 49.6 percents; for blacks, 13.7 percent; and for Asians 4.4 percent.
Unlike other immigrant minorities like Asians, who enter the country on the back of educational attainments or job qualifications, Hispanics can contribute to high-end jobs only in the long term — if they are able to attain a costly education and keep clear of gang loyalties in several cities on the West Coast.
And time will tell whether the idea of America will change — diminish to embrace less, under the pull of divergent minority interests. Or embrace the new immigrants to reinvent itself.