Immigrant or Native?
It is often said that the US is a land of immigrants but the unspeakable corollary is: not all immigrants are seen as equals. We do not treat immigrants from Cuba the same as those who came from Ireland. We do not see the Vietnamese who crossed an ocean to reach us the same as those who cross the Rio Grande. We value immigrants with key skills and create special visas for them so that they can work at some of our most prestigious academic institutions and some of the most innovative corporations.
Likewise, it should be understood that immigrants do not see our land in the same way. The people who traveled an ocean, escaping the ravages of war came to the US to seek refuge. In solidarity with their plight, the US grants asylum. The scientists, students and scholars, who visit us, see the United States as a place to expand their intellectual independence and create unparalleled opportunity. Our dire shortage of scientists and our desire to be competitive compels us to say yes to these elite immigrants. We do not have a one-size fits all immigration policy because we have different immigrants.
In the wake of the immigration debate sparked by the events in Arizona, we now desperately need to understand immigrants from Mexico and the unique relationship to this land among the many people whose ancestry transcends our borders. While it is true many come here to seek jobs, their presence here is not limited to seeking opportunity. In 1848 when the US signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to secure the land we now consider to be California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah roughly 100,000 Mexicans inhabited the territory. As the US further expanded and borders shifted in what is now Texas, families that had lived in one region for several generations suddenly found themselves defined in between the land they called home and the new land that considered them outcasts. Many Mexican immigrants consider themselves native to these lands. Indeed, they would at least argue “we were here long before any other immigrant group”. And because of this history, Mexicans do not feel obligated to shed themselves of their tradition or history or language. By contrast, the Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants in the 1940’s knew they had abandoned their homeland in order to survive and live freely and thus their acculturation happened differently. There was no turning back. For Mexican immigrants, there is much less of a sense of having left “home” or needing to give up their identity. These lands are not foreign and there is nothing “illegal” about being here.
While some would argue that we are well beyond 1848, history cannot be ignored. Immigration reform is desperately needed to address the presence of an estimated 7 million people from Mexico who remain in the Southwest and who overwhelming live quietly as hard working people, contributing to local economies. But policy and legislation will fail unless we consider the identity of this vibrant community and the cultural roots tied to these lands. Many nations have drawn borders only to fail against the deeply rooted culture associated with geography. The US is poised to fail in its reforms again, unless a new accord is found with a people who remain loyal to our lands.