My mother came to America from El Salvador. My paternal grandparents came from Europe. Each one immigrated legally, which is the essence of the American experience – huddled masses yearning to be free and all that.
However, in the eyes of many Americans, my mother and grandparents were selfish and immoral. After all, whenever a debate starts up about immigration, it’s just a matter of time before someone says, “They need to stay and fix their own countries instead of coming here.”
The implication is that people have an ethical obligation to remain in their homelands rather than try to improve their own lives. Of course, none of the Americans saying this have ancestors who took that advice. As soon as Ireland ran a little low on potatoes, for example, lots of people said “see ya” rather than stick around for the sake of rescuing Belfast.
In fact, the United States would not exist if everybody stayed home to fix his or her own nation.This place would be nothing but Native Americans, lost Canadians and a stray Mexican or two. So, why would anyone make this argument, which is so easily refuted by pointing to their own familial history? The reason is simple: many people want to establish a connection between contemporary immigration and immortality. Doing so allows them to conceal their prejudices under a comforting quilt of self-righteousness.
Of course, an instant rebuttal is that other canard of the debate: “I’m not against immigration, just illegal immigration.” I’m sure that’s true of many people. But for many others, it’s a convenient smokescreen.
Witness the animosity toward the DREAM Act, which according to opponents, is a “reward for criminal behavior.” As we know, the criminals in question were children at the time of their transgression, but this is immaterial. Although we take a person’s age into consideration when it comes to everything from shoplifting to murder, there can be no such analysis when it comes to illegal immigration. These kids are stained, permanently, modern-day descendants of Ham. They’re not just undocumented; they’re immoral by association.
Anti-immigration people know that it’s not enough to say that something is illegal. Laws change, and yesterday’s criminal behavior is today’s mainstream behavior. We no longer prosecute individuals for adultery, and many politicians talk openly about legalizing marijuana. If you’re against those things, your only hope is to say, “Yes, it’s no longer against the law, but decent people don’t do that.”
So if you dislike, say, the Spanish-speaking new neighbor who has a green card, you can just imply that he’s a moral failure because he didn’t stick around and clean up Guatemala. He is beyond redemption, which is odd, considering nobody says that about people like Michael Vick, Chris Brown, or Michael Milken.
But then again, they’re not immigrants.