We Are All Immigrants? Not Exactly.
That old adage "we are all immigrants" has been bandied about with increasing frequency of late to support all manner of loosey-goosey immigration policies. The assumption seems to be that immigration is an unquestioned good. We are all immigrants, and look what wonderful people we are, so immigration is peachy for the country. We must have more of it!
As with so many modern ideas, this one is founded on a canard. We all are most emphatically not immigrants.
I'll start with me. I am a descendant of colonists turned revolutionaries. My ancestor Adam was thirteen when he joined the ragtag ranks of the insurrectionists in Maryland. He survived to witness the surrender of the British at Yorktown. Adam was a founder, not an immigrant.
Adam's story is just one example of a person who became a citizen through means other than immigration. Perhaps your French ancestor was happily trapping beavers along a Missouri River in 1803 when President Jefferson bought the land right out from under him in the Louisiana Purchase. C'est la vie. But it's not immigration. Actually, your forebear's path to citizenship was a bumpy ride. Although Louisiana came in easily, the other states formed out of this vast territory were the subject of monumental pulling and tugging over the expansion of slavery and the balance of power between slave and free states. New citizens were minted by compromise and calculation. Citizens of Maine owe Missourians a debt of gratitude, because they were used as a counterweight to balance the statehood of slave-holding Missouri.
Farther west, residents of states like Colorado and California came to statehood via disparate paths. Coloradans had to achieve the required population threshold, form a state, establish boundaries, hold a constitutional convention, adopt a constitution, and hold elections — hard work, and good practice for exercising the duties of citizenship, but nothing to do with immigration. They should resent the Californians, because the Left Coast was allowed to skip the territory stage and become a full-fledged state muy rápidamente because there was oro in them thar hills.
Every black American knows that you can call being shackled in the hold of a schooner bound for Virginia many things. Inhumane. Exploitative. Cruel. Barbaric. The one thing you can't call it is immigration. When emancipation came, it was not immigration, either.
American Indians obtained their citizenship by treaty, statute or congressional action, not because they arrived first. Indigenous people also were in Alaska and Hawaii in 1959, when these far flung territories became states. In a sense, America immigrated to them, not the other way round. It was the Cold War, after all. One wonders whether they would have preferred to be dominated by Russia or Japan, respectively. Surely not.
Much of the confusion over the importance of immigration to America stems from a fuzzy understanding of what the United States of America is. Other countries are associated with a specific geography, which may or may not be coupled with an ethnicity. Religion may also play a role. Their national identity has evolved over a long period, not forged from a deliberative act. Over the years, they may have transitioned through various forms of government. Some nations are pretty volatile and have a flavor-of-the-month government; others endure for generations. But the structure is an appendage of the identity. Then there are the countries where there are no citizens, just slaves.
The U.S. of A. is something altogether new in the world. The governing structure came first, and states had to consent to join. Refreshing. We have a deal, not a dynasty or a divinity. There is a contract between the governing and the governed. You can't immigrate to that; you have to affirm it. Swimming the Rio Grande makes you at best a tourist or at worst a squatter, but not a citizen. The notion that placing a toe on our soil gets you anything other than a damp foot is ludicrous.
In conclusion, many if not most of us are here due to nationhood and statehood initiatives born of our unique, federal approach to governance. Notwithstanding Ellis Island and the historic influx of Irish, Italians, Poles and others, our origins as a people are complicated and transactional but, above all, constitutional.
Now that we have stripped immigration of its romantic communal aura, what are we to make of it? To a country governed by the consent of its citizenry, what role does it have to play? Proponents tout diversity, new blood, new skills, and new ideas. Employers salivate over new workers. The rich anticipate gardeners, cooks, maids, and nannies. Human rights activists see oppressed asylum-seekers. Demographers see youth to counter the graying of the population.
Why isn't anyone looking for a prospective good citizen? What I mean by that is an individual who understands and is enthusiastic about participating in our governing process, a person who will hold up his end of the bargain when it comes to making leaders accountable. Most of the arguments put forward above are economic or sentimental. We need an immigration policy that prioritizes citizenship skills. We have a chance to transform immigration into a positive force to energize our union, replacing the broken, passive, divisive mess we endure today.
Hard to do, you say? I think it might be easier than you think. If a corporate recruiter can target and assess new employees, why can't we identify and invite auspicious prospects? Doesn't the military vet recruits? There are some Hong Kong demonstrators languishing in jails right now who have an excellent grasp of freedom of speech and other cherished rights. We should confer U.S. citizenship on them immediately and demand their release. Thanks to the internet, others who are motivated to come can learn about our founding documents online. Let them demonstrate competence before they set foot on our soil.
The Democrat party adores stampede-style immigration because party leaders think they will get new voters. They are right to see a link between new arrivals and one of the principal duties of citizenship. However, that's about where the logic ends. Democrats think that the more ignorant you are, the more often you should vote. What I am proposing is a process that identifies or creates a candidate with a firm grasp of the Constitution and Bill of Rights and sufficient English language skills to follow and even participate in the political debate. This high road to citizenship candidacy would begin and end before a prospect arrives on our shore.
There are those who oppose any sort of standard as elitist. Yet today, U.S. citizenship is valuable, perhaps more so than at any time in our past. Tens of millions of people all over the world think so and would come here if they could. Parents pay coyotes thousands to get their children here. Moreover, current citizens have a right to expect new arrivals to be a net positive, not a burden. So why not some criteria? It would be less elitist than the current situation, where Ph.D.s get in to go work in Silicon Valley, or where Grandma gets in because she is family.
As citizens in the freest and most rational society on the planet, we have awesome privileges and serious responsibilities. Most of the world lives in slavery. We enjoy liberty and prosperity. But without an immigration policy that focuses on the importance of citizenship, we won't have it for long. Now is the time to turbo-charge naturalization, galvanize the franchise, and vouchsafe our independence for generations to come.
Ms. Russell is a retired biotechnology industry consultant and sometime novelist.