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The Real Issue Behind the Border Wall Debate

The debate over a wall separating the United States and Mexico goes to the heart of American society.

The wall itself is about preventing illegal immigration, but the debate inevitably flows to the question of immigration in general, as it always has in American history.

An Agonizing Experience

The American nation was forged from fragments of other nations.

The English, Scotch-Irish, Swedish, Germans, Catholic Irish, Italians, Jews and Africans joined together, or, better yet, were crushed together, to create the American nation. It was a painful process.

At any given point, Americans believed that the way America was then was the way it ought to be. Thus the settlers from England were appalled at the arrival of the Scotch-Irish, who were seen as unassimilable and irredeemable brawlers, drunkards and thugs.

When the Irish Catholics arrived, many feared they could not assimilate to a predominantly Protestant society. Indeed, the debate over whether a Catholic could become president dominated the 1960 election, more than a century after the Irish influx began.

Virtually all immigrants who came to the United States were those being crushed in their own societies (except, of course, for Africans slaves, who were brought to the U.S. through no choice of their own). They left families, customs and all that was familiar for a new start. The Jamestown and Plymouth colonies were built on this process. It was the core American experience: suffering through being a stranger in a strange land while being distrusted and even loathed.

The nation-building process in the U.S. was an agonizing experience. Some have romanticized it, forgetting that the melting pot was hot enough to dissolve human souls, and that the pain fell both on the immigrants themselves and on those with whom they merged. Yet immigration was essential. The first European immigrants who arrived were too few to create a nation that could settle and exploit the continent, spark industrialization, and win wars. Had the U.S. remained simply an English nation, it would have been annihilated long ago. Immigrants were indispensable to the creation of a viable country, and, inevitably, most would come from “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” as Emma Lazarus put it. The United States welcomed immigrants out of necessity and even desperation, the same factors that drove immigrants to the U.S. in the first place.

But the reality of immigration lies not only in the broad story of the American nation, where the agony is lost in the glory, but in the details. I immigrated with my family to the United States from Hungary as an infant. We settled in a tenement in the Bronx. The most important part of our story was not that we were poor, but rather that our family was torn apart. My parents brought my sister and me to the United States because they had no choice. Their home abandoned them in World War II, and America welcomed them. For immigrants, however, America is a mistress who gives generously of her pleasure but is ruthless in her demands. You must be completely devoted to America to enjoy her pleasures to the fullest. My parents had lived through too much and had grown too weary to pay that price. They didn’t hope for the ecstasy America offered; they were content with sanctuary, however meager.

My hopes diverged from my parents’ needs. My parents were loving, yet, in a way, they became irrelevant. They could not guide me on my path. In those years, many immigrants settled in the Bronx. The Jewish kids banded together. So did the Irish, the Italians, the Puerto Ricans and the African-Americans. They drew strength from each other, rather than from their families. The cruel paradox of immigration is that it divides parents and children. The children long for America while the parents long for relief. And when the children band together, they learn the first lesson of America: It has pity for the weak and respect only for the strong.

You learn this lesson on the streets, where you discover that pain is not the worst thing in the world. Cowardice is. Winning is everything. Fighting fearlessly and losing brings opportunity for redemption. Fleeing the field of battle to huddle with your parents denies you pride and entry into America. America is for those who have the strength not only to play baseball or to excel in school but also to learn the lesson of the streets and to pay the price of entry.

Imagine what the Bronx was like back then. Young thugs, or would-be thugs, roaming the streets, seeking and fearing the moment when they must prove their manhood. The boys and girls, driven by hormones, as much strangers to their parents as their parents were to them, alone in a world to make what rules they could. The law was what you made of it, and the cops were just another gang, albeit a very dangerous one.

The Bronx was once a genteel borough of New York, with stately apartment buildings and vast parks. But it was at the bare limits of gentility. Those whose families came a century before were now gone, and the children of the new immigrants turned much of the Bronx into a nightmare. The parents of these children lived their lives in terror, fearing every trip to the grocery store. The dream of a little safety brought them back to the war zone.

A Predictable Response

Immigrants tend to move to neighborhoods with low rents, and they often live together so they have people around them who speak their language. They’re satisfied with simply making a home in their new land. But their settlement can create havoc for those who were there before – those who also live in low-cost neighborhoods and now must compete for jobs and housing. As the new immigrant group expands, word spreads that this particular group is uniquely dangerous, and the belief grows that immigration must be stopped. For those who have the means to insulate themselves from the fear and uncertainty, on the other hand, this process isn’t a cause for concern. For them, immigration is a concept, not a reality, and so they see it as a charitable endeavor.

The reality is that the United States cannot survive without waves of immigrants. It’s never been able to grow without immigrants, and there’s no reason to believe it can now. But the process of immigration becomes more painful the closer you come to it. The idea that those afraid of immigration are racist misses the point. Immigration directly impacts many of those who fear its effects. Many of those who don’t fear it live in well-off communities where new immigrants tend not to settle.

Fear is a predictable response to immigration. The English feared the Scotch-Irish. Protestants feared Irish Catholics. And the cycle continues. Even a group as disreputable and hated as the Scots made the transition, and now, fully integrated for centuries, they loathe and fear new arrivals.

In two centuries of debating immigration, both sides have been systematically oblivious to the realities underlying the debate. The advocates of immigration are oblivious to its disproportionate impact on those who live in poorer neighborhoods. Those wary of immigration are oblivious to the impact of ending it in a time of declining birthrates, and to the fact that immigration is embedded in the nation’s soul. The beauty of America is that every American can have an opinion that makes little sense. It is as charming as a gang brawl in a schoolyard. But in the end, America has survived this debate many times, and the outcome has always been the same.

The U.S. economy has always depended on a constant inflow of low-paid workers. What has been true since the founding remains true now or the migrants would not be still coming. This has brought with it tension, violence and pain, far more for the poorest Americans than for the wealthy, who have benefited from immigration. But we cannot stop immigration. Nor can we make those insulated from its effects understand or care about the pain this process inevitably causes.

Welcoming immigrants is not an act of kindness but a necessity.

Those who think of it as an act of kindness misunderstand the lives of immigrants and those who live among them.

Immigration has always been a growing pain of the Republic.

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