“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them … I [am against] curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1859.
Contemporary American society views myself as a white, American male. I am seen as a part of the least-discriminated-against ethnic identities in modern America. However, just more than a century ago, I would have instead been seen as an American male of questionable German stock and suspiciously unknown religious affiliation (notice, you don’t classify your friends as either Catholic or Protestant). The “white men” whom Abraham Lincoln referred to were harassed and politically excluded because of their Central, Eastern, or Southern European heritage. I would have faced temperant societies protesting my ability to party (imagine protesters outside Study Hall or picketing Bill’s Bus). I would have faced employment discrimination due to my last name (Kornahrens, obviously not Anglo-American).
The point of this thought-experiment is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and not take your social status for granted. The “American Experience” is one of continual assimilation of heterogeneous ethnic groups into one America. That is why German, Italians and the Irish identities evolved over time into the classification of being “White.” No one today would argue that St. Patrick’s Day or Oktoberfest are divisive cultural events that degrade America. But in 19th and early 20th century America, prominent political factions arguing exactly that Germans and Irish immigration and proliferation was detrimental to America.
With that history in mind, we cannot conscientiously accept the argument that Hispanic immigration is incompatible with the American identity. Where the rule of law has been broken, there must be redress and a better legal code. In spite of the fines and penalties included in the last decade’s bipartisan immigration reform bills (e.g. McCain-Kennedy in 2007), Republicans still cried “Amnesty!” and blocked compromise to fix the problem. In spite of the bill’s college graduation and military service thresholds, Republicans still cried “Amnesty!” and have blocked the DREAM Act since its bipartisan introduction in 2001.
All of these blocked bipartisan bills featured financial penalties for illegal immigration, increased funding for border protection and many other carrots to attract Republicans votes. Yet again and again, the U.S. Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold has allowed a minority of Senators to kill bipartisan bills meant to correct the untenable immigration legal structure.
America always has been and always will be a multicultural “city upon the hill.” Our private practices descended from our ancestors’ homelands only to enliven the American public sphere. Our legal code has always changed (eventually) to accompany the differing tides of migrants coming to find America’s promise of a better life. These legal codes must be renewed once again through immigration reform. Any Republican intransigence is only betraying President Ronald Reagan’s legacy of defining America as “a city [upon the hill] with free ports that [hum] with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Nexus liberal columnist David Kornahrens is a third-generation American and loves celebrating Cinco de Mayo.