From Ellis Island to an electrified fence, why America is so torn on immigration

This is what immigration used to be: the Statue of Liberty, your grandparents’ journey across the ocean and the institution that made our country great.

This is how it can seem today: out of control, breaking the law and stealing American jobs.

Those are not necessarily two sides of a debate. Americans are very capable of exalting immigration in the past even while fearing it in the future. But we need to move away from that paradox in order to manage immigration in the present.

We’ve been locked in a stalemate over immigration for more than a decade. Political polarization is certainly at fault. So are the many people — including anyone who eats vegetables or uses a computer — who benefit economically from the status quo. But our public disagreements are matched by private conflicts. When it comes to immigration, we are not only a divided nation — we have a divided brain.

The national ambivalence is evident. A Gallup survey this year found that a majority of Americans, 53 percent, said it was “extremely important” for the government to halt the flow of illegal immigrants at the border. Yet an even larger majority, 64 percent, said that illegal immigrants already in the country should be allowed to remain and become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements.

On the stump, this paradox is captured by a formulation favored by President Obama and many other politicians: “We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation of laws.” Even in the marketplace of truisms, that one is not particularly useful for crafting public policy.

In vowing to fight the Obama administration’s court challenges to his state’s “strongest in the nation” immigration law, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said recently, “As a physician, I would never ask a sick person if he or she was legal or illegal.” Nonetheless, he proclaimed his “sworn duty” to uphold a law that would require schools to check the status of pupils.

One explanation for how we live with such irreconcilable views lies in the stories we tell about migration. Simply put, we have contradictory narratives of past and present. Our history does not connect to our future. We love immigration looking backward, but we are apprehensive looking forward.

The master builder of the historical narrative was Oscar Handlin, a Harvard scholar, who died in September at the age of 95. In the first lines of his 1951 classic, “The Uprooted,” Handlin declared: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” The story he told was of peasants “thrust away” from what had been a stable existence for generations “and carried cruelly to a distant land, and set to labor, unrewarding labor.” Whether on the prairies or in the cities, the immigrants of the transatlantic wave — Handlin dates it from 1820 to 1920 — suffered alienation and isolation. But, in an epic individual struggle repeated millions of times, the newcomers made homes and communities, and they bred children who became more American than they had ever imagined possible (or had ever intended).

This is the story of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” or of Sam Krichinsky, the grandfather in Barry Levinson’s film “Avalon,” who lands in Baltimore magically on the Fourth of July amid fireworks and the red, white and blue. It is the real-life story of little Annie Mooreof County Cork, the first registered passenger to pass through the immigration station at Ellis Island, arriving on New Year’s Day 1892. She married a baker who worked at New York’s Fulton Fish Market, and they had 11 children in the tenements of Lower Manhattan. Her story, like all of these stories, was resurrected after the fact. Moore spent decades forgotten in an unmarked grave, but bronze statues were erected both at her port of departure in Ireland and at Ellis Island to commemorate the centennial of her voyage.

The great transatlantic migration became heroic only in retrospect. The hostility and fear, the segregation and deportations, have been airbrushed away in the popular imagination to be replaced by domesticated family lore. The story begins with deracination and ends with the finding of a new home, the building of a new hearth. Becoming American is a natural, inevitable occurrence.

In our national memory, immigration is a journey from danger to safety.

In the present, immigration is a story of disequilibrium brought about by strangers. When immigration meets a national loss of confidence, as in this time of economic crisis, the byproduct can be outright fear.

In the stories of here and now, the journey is reversed; immigration becomes a passage from safety to danger.

Consider the case of Robert Krentz, who was gunned down in March 2010 while working his 35,000-acre ranch in an area of Arizona that sees a lot of illegal traffic from the Mexican border nearby. The crime remains unsolved, but many assume that an illegal immigrant was responsible. Krentz instantly became a martyr for proponents of tougher action against illegal immigration. Weeks after his killing, Arizona enacted a law that would enable immigration dragnets by state and local police in the name of public safety.

The old narrative of immigration has trained us to think in terms of the striving individual who triumphs against the odds. Expecting heroic feats, we celebrate the successful immigrant entrepreneurs but do nothing about the doctors, engineers and other highly skilled immigrants who are driving cabs because their credentials aren’t recognized here. Countries such as Canada and Australia put us to shame by offering programs to help immigrants improve their English and transfer professional credentials.

Our immigration stories make the newcomers the protagonists of the drama, so the hosts become passive bystanders. How else could millions of low-skilled Mexicans “take” jobs away from citizens of the world’s richest country? In response, we want to build a fence to keep them out rather than looking at what we did economically and demographically to create a market for their labor.

When trouble develops, as it inevitably does, whether it is natives losing jobs or an undocumented immigrant caught in a DUI, the protagonist, the individual, takes the blame, and the host society becomes the innocent victim. And so the contemporary narrative suffers from more than sins of omission. Our policy debate is focused on the people who come to this country illegally, to the exclusion of any other considerations.

The standard migration stories have failed to enlighten either the public or the policymakers. We are left with false choices. We think that unauthorized migrants either have to be made part of the family — citizens — or we have to forcibly expel them from our home. The result is the kind of discourse we’ve seen in the recent Republican presidential debates, where the candidates have engaged in a game of one-upmanship to prove who is the toughest on immigration. The electrified fence proposed, jokingly or not, by Herman Cain is an inevitable outcome. Undocumented immigrants have never accounted for more than a third of the foreign-born population, and today that share is less; but in our political debates, they might as well be the whole of it.

The other extreme is no more helpful. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, seems to be waiting for an immigrant superman who will fix Wall Street and Main Street all at once. He told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last month that “immigration reform based on economics rather than anything else” would create thousands of jobs without costing a penny. Taking steps to increase the flow of highly skilled immigrants, he said, “would do more to strengthen the economy than anything that is being discussed in Washington today.”

A debate that paints immigrants as either criminals or saviors is destined to produce paralysis. Regardless of what proposals are implemented — legalization for current unauthorized migrants or punishment, 10,000 Border Patrol agents or 20,000 — we’ll never achieve a situation in which all entries are legal and orderly and all newcomers are Americanized and upstanding. By dwelling on perceived threats and promising to return to an idealized past, political leaders compound the confusion and undermine the chances of anything working.

Making a success of immigration a century ago involved both newcomers and hosts learning to manage the unfamiliar. It was a slow and sometimes painful process, and success today requires nothing less.

Roberto Suro is a professor of public policy and director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is an anthropologist and co-director of immigration studies at New York University. They are co-editors of “Writing Immigration: Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue.”

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