When I first heard about President Barack Obama’s executive order for immigration reform, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The notion of allowing men and women who had arrived in America illegally to continue to live here smacked of some degree of giving up, law enforcement’s way of saying “well, can’t do anything about it now!” I was sceptical that the country would be even a little understanding of a president-driven initiative to avoid going after individuals who have broken American law by arriving in this country without going through the proper processes.
(For a transcript of the speech, click here)
The more I read, though, the more I understood, on an ideological level, where the president was coming from. America is a nation founded upon immigration. Every major city in America was, at one point, a form of safe-haven for foreigners to come and set up new roots. Boston is deeply Irish, Cincinnati has strong German ties, and even New York is a settlement for people from, well, OLD York!
The general public has reacted in vicious and generally selfish ways. There has been such an arrogant outcry from a large segment of the American people, firmly believing that their right to be American was hard-won, God-given, and would be compromised if foreigners were to steal their birthright of Star Spangled Awesome right from underneath them. This is, for all intents and purposes, the most self-righteous attitude I could possibly imagine.
Most Americans didn’t do anything to deserve their “birthright”; in most cases, you’re an American because your mother birthed you in the “right” place. Because of your geographic location, you have a form of privilege that is nearly impossible to fully grasp.
Now, someone born on the other side of the border may not be as lucky. They do not have the privilege of growing up in a country that offers them the kind of opportunities that we, as Americans, take for granted.
Yet, in almost every case, those who cross the border into America illegally demonstrate a skill that we would love to believe is uniquely American: dedication. These are people willing to risk their lives and their livelihoods in an attempt to improve their lives, to make a living and find a job and go to a place where, in their minds, dreams can come true. How do we, as the Americans, rationalize beating these people back to where they came from when it is so American of them to do what it takes to succeed?
This is, of course, challenged by the fact that these people broke the law. They bypassed a system set in place to try to bring order and justice. They put their own needs ahead of those of the greater society. We cannot be held hostage by those who have a disregard for the law, and cannot allow national security to be compromised by those who have not proven they can be productive members of American society. As President Obama put it, “All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.”
On that point, though, Obama was abundantly clear: If you are a contributing member of society, a skilled worker or thinker, you should be able to pursue the American dream.
My favorite moment from Obama’s announcement was his reference to being strangers. He said “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”
This executive order is idealism at it’s finest. It isn’t perfect. Frankly, it isn’t even a realistic long-term option, as idealism rarely is. Real reform has to take place, and soon. But, in it’s most basic form, this is Obama’s way of saying that we need to do something to improve America, and we need to do it now. We need to be kind. We need to be welcoming. And we need to be strong. And I couldn’t agree more.