The idea of immigrants coming to the USA in search of a better life is an intrinsic part of the American Myth. This story reinforces some particular attributes that foreigners, like myself, and American citizens see in this country that allow us to establish a way of defining the spirit of the United States. The story tell us about a land of prosperity and opportunities, which attracts people all over the world to give a leap of faith and travel all the way here. It tells us about a nation that is welcoming to foreigners, painting an image of tolerance and inclusiveness, which is necessary to accept the different groups of people that come to live here and for this groups to be able to flourish. Ultimately, the idea of foreigners coming here creates the image of uniqueness. Meaning that America is not like most places. In other words, it is exceptional.
The tensions in this story are easy to see when one look into the history of the country and see the long history of discrimination and repression in the USA. Focusing in citizenship, a strong indicator of inclusiveness, one can see that immigrants from Western Europe were more welcome to this country than immigrants from, for example, China or Mexico. Another thing that is clear is that, even between people that were born here, the process of inclusion in citizenship has been a process of struggle for not land-owning white men, black people, Native Americans and women of all color.
Judith Shklar explores this struggle as part of voting when she says that: “after long and painful struggles the inherent political logic of American representative democracy, based on political equality, did prevail.” While political equality might had little meaning in the earlier history of a country that gave citizenship to such a limited and homogenous group of people, the fundamental values of equality and liberty were tools used by abolitionist fighters to question in a critical way the definition of American citizen. Frederick Douglass insightfully explored the huge gap of meaning of the American values in a country were slavery was legal. In his speech What to the Slave Is The Fourth of July?, he questioned this values, from an African-American perspective, saying: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” His criticism was constructed not in the idea of changing American values, but in attacking its inconsistencies.
Shklar talked about the exclusivity of citizenship as part of what makes it special and the inherent contradiction it creates. Citizenship is a mean to create equal political individuals, but it also establish a system that excludes people, thus creating inequality. With the extension of citizenship, and its benefits, to marginal groups, the element of exclusion has diminished, but limiting citizenship to a certain group of people is still a defining element of the concept itself. In the actuality, most American citizens would agree that anybody that was born in American territory has the right to citizenship, but what about immigrants?
In American Citizenship, Shklar mentions that one of the two elements that make citizenship is the ability to earn money. In this country undocumented immigrants can earn money, but their lack of a legal status means that they can be send back to their country, and voting is not their right. Giving amnesty to undocumented workers is a possibility, but this might bother the people that try to move to this country legally, which connects to the idea of citizenship as something exclusive. What is the point of following rules to become a citizen if other people can get it when they broke the law? Does this diminish the meaning of American citizenship?
I don’t pretend to come to any conclusion about the immigration debate. However, I would like to point back at the troubles and tensions of immigration. Laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Immigration Act of 1924 showed a clear systematic tendency to discriminate immigrants from certain parts of the world. There are special countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Salvador, where the USA involvement in the last couple of decades has left serious socio-economic problems, which should be consider when people of those countries try to move to this country. Finally, any argument about immigration should be make trying to uphold the noblest side of the American values and should not dehumanize and generalize immigrants. The reasons of people to move are varied and should be seen, according to the history of American immigration that many hold as true, with at least a minimum of empathy and understanding.