Thanksgiving for immigrants

Posted: Nov 19, 2002 12:00 AM
On Thanksgiving next week, many of us will remember how God blessed, and some Indians helped, Pilgrim immigrants to America. Next month comes Christmas, when many of us celebrate the most sensational immigration of all time, the birth of Jesus. Those events are worth considering as we examine the arguments about immigration today. Is it possible to take wise precautions against both terrorism and future disunity while honoring the pro-immigration flavor of American and biblical history? Let's look at the four major types of anti-immigration arguments. Type one criticizes not the immigrants themselves but a culture no longer committed to helping them assimilate. Some schools do a poor job of teaching immigrant children English, and thus limit their social and economic mobility. Some schools emphasize America's faults, instead of teaching that this country has accorded immigrants liberty and opportunity unprecedented in world history. Concerns about what we teach immigrants are valid if America is to become not a divided nation, but one still living out the phrase e pluribus unum. Type two arguments emphasize homeland security. These also are generally valid. Given the backgrounds of the Sept. 11 perpetrators, extra caution is in order when reviewing visa applications from countries that grow terrorists and do not crack down on them. The federal government must make our borders more than paper lines if it is to fulfill its constitutional function of providing for the common defense. Type three arguments that favor restricting immigration to limit population growth are not as strong. Sure, we are to be stewards of God's creation and not overcrowd it, but this country still has a wealth of abundantly wide-open spaces. Urban areas are congested, but many small towns and rural areas are facing depopulation. Ironically, the doors for immigration and abortion opened in the 1960s at around the same time, and in some ways the number of immigrants has merely replaced many of the babies who were killed before birth. Type four anti-immigration arguments are really anti-immigrant arguments.
We don't want those people, some conservatives say or suggest: They're not our kind. Among the murmurs: They're not used to democratic government, so they'll be easy prey for potential dictators. They're used to big government, so they'll vote for Democrats. They'll undermine America's Christian traditions. This argument goes against American historical experience, which shows that those who have been denied liberties usually appreciate them the most. Sure, Democrats have gained most of the Hispanic vote in elections past, but Republicans should realize that they have also asked for those votes far more fervently. A survey by Latino Opinions shows two-thirds of Hispanics identifying themselves as pro-life. Now that George W. Bush is making Hispanic outreach a prime GOP task, voting patterns are beginning to reflect Latino values. Conservatives should pay more attention to surveys showing that three-fourths of Latinos, compared to 60 percent of Americans overall, say that religion (almost always Christianity) provides considerable guidance in their lives. Korean-Americans are 10 times more likely to be Christian than Buddhist, and other immigrants from Asia also often have Christian backgrounds. Native-born Christians worried about Christianity losing support in the United States should look in the mirror. Two Zen Buddhist centers I visited recently were run by white Anglo-Saxon former Protestants. The Catholic priests involved in sex scandals uncovered last year and this rarely have Hispanic names. Liberal denominations that are losing members -- Episcopalians, United Methodists and others -- have been rocked by dissension over ordaining gays, not accepting immigrants. Some Americans have other anti-immigration arguments: High-tech jobs taken by H-IB visa holders when citizens are unemployed. Acceptance of illegal immigrants undercutting the rule of law. These questions need serious examination, but with an eye to remaining hospitable. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," this country said a century ago, at a time when America was a poorer country than it is now. Today, we can still stand for hope, as we teach immigrants English but not the nuances of the welfare system. We can show the world how to take precautions against terrorism without walling ourselves in.