Amnesty has come and gone in a flurry of paperwork—72,000 applications on deadline day in the Los Angeles immigration district alone. Next comes the crackdown, as employers are conscripted in the war (why do we always call these things wars?) on illegal aliens.
After six years of bitter debate in Congress and another year in which amnesty dominated the headlines, the new immigration law is a fact of daily life. The purest Daughter of the American Revolution can no longer get a job without presenting the right papers.
But the United States is no closer than ever to resolving the contradictions of our immigration policy. And we still have not "gained control over our borders"—nor will we ever.
Just as people will risk their lives to cross the Wall as long as East Berlin remains enslaved, so people will risk mere deportation to cross the Rio Grande as long as America remains free—economically as well as politically. Greater force, whether exercised against employers or immigrants, raises the cost of illegal immigration. But it will not entirely cancel out the benefits, not as long as America is still America.
And no law can resolve our complex, mixed feelings about immigrants. Neither can the facts. We can wear ourselves ragged citing statistics and demolishing myths, pulling out study after study to show that immigrants add more to the economy than they subtract. That they pay more in taxes than they take out in services. That if they don't learn English, their children do. That they don't take jobs away from native workers and in fact may create jobs for them.
But the immigration debate is not, unfortunately, about facts. It is about images—powerful, gut-level images. To those who oppose immigration, aliens are just that—alien, foreign, sinister. They speak strange tongues, observe strange customs, carry strange values. They pollute our culture with their foreign ways.
Thus it is that cultural conservative Thomas Fleming writes in threatening tones about "the large number of illegal aliens who come to America for the sole purpose of producing citizens or finding jobs."
This is a pretty odd complaint. Most of our ancestors immigrated for the same reasons—freedom and capitalism, we might call them. And, besides, would Fleming really prefer immigrants who came here to stay single, get drunk, and collect welfare? If a native raises a family and works for a living, that's great. Traditional values in action. But those aliens—they're up to no good, no matter what they do.
Against this fear of the alien (xenophobia, from the Greek), those of us who support the right to immigrate hold up other images. Hard-working entrepreneurs and Nobel-winning scientists are our favorites, but we have another, more important image to offer—not of immigrants but of our country. The United States of America is a unique invention. It is not a tribe joined by common ancestry or shared history; it has no state religion and few official rituals; it is not even defined by the land itself.
America is an abstraction, one that drives people here from every corner of the globe and makes U.S. citizens the most instinctively patriotic people on earth. It is the first nation based on contract—voluntary agreement among Americans as individuals to live together and govern ourselves. Immigrants, here by choice, remind us that we live in a country based on choice. They make the national contract more than a philosophical metaphor expressed in 200-year-old documents. They make it a living covenant.
From childhood on, we hear this covenant described in terms of democracy and freedom of conscience. We're told of the Pilgrims, who came here seeking religious freedom: "They journeyed many a day and night/To worship God as they thought right," as our second-grade Thanksgiving poem put it. Immigrants become synonymous with refugees.
But because we are a nation based on choice, we have always attracted immigrants seeking economic as well as political freedom. Maybe we should teach kids a few poems about all the settlers who came here looking for the chance to own land.
And, while we should always extend a refuge to the persecuted, we shouldn't belittle those who seek economic asylum today. The Mexican who comes here to find a construction job and build a better life for his family expresses American ideals just as surely as the Soviet dissident escaping torture.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "After Amnesty".