The Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island. US history. The diversity most of us see every day. All serve to remind us we are a country of immigrants. So why the current wave of anti immigrant sentiment?
While the US’s relationship with immigration may precede its independence, that long history is punctuated by a range of attitudes, all the way from a warm embrace , through indifference or the cold shoulder, to outright hostility.
Many are aware of the current controversy surrendering President Trump’s pledge and determination to build a wall along our 2,000 mile long southern border. Most readers also know that populism in multiple countries has immigration as its focus.
The migration of millions from unstable parts of the world to seemingly more stable ones is certainly a recent phenomenon enabled by globalisation, technologically enabled connectivity and visibility it provides into increasing inequality but also opportunity. Such flow, often unplanned for in terms of reception, verification or support, have lead to anger, resentment and a sense of insecurity in many of the so called ‘stable’ nations at the receiving end of such migration, and the US is no exception.
American attitudes to immigration are however unique in many ways. The first is an apparent paradox. A country of immigrants places an increased focus and value on the second generation. Those born in this country to parents who came from elsewhere make extra efforts to shed the culture and attitudes their parents brought from the ‘Old Country’, or at the very least balance them with American qualities.
The possession of what is commonly referred to as an “accent” (read foreign accent) is looked down upon by those who speak ‘perfect English’, which contrary to logic does not mean correct grammar syntax or vocabulary but unaccented American English.
Attitudes here have also always had a racist tone. The first settlers were pale Anglo-Saxons who had to prevail over the darker, Native American Indians. Black slaves imported here were not considered fully human, let alone equal. The Chinese brought over to build railroads and other infrastructure were not accepted as citizens for decades. Italians and Eastern Europeans were swarthy and therefore considered probably dirty and not trustworthy. But these groups at least were keen to learn English and integrate.
The most recent group to arrive here, Latinos, are not only brown but seem less keen to learn English and more content to maintain the culture and lifestyle they came with. The increasing prevalence of Spanish as an American language alongside English is seen as unAmerican by many.
Like in other countries, anti-immigrant xenophobia is more common when economic conditions are difficult, competition for jobs intensifies or is deemed unfair and immigrants, particularly those in the country illegally, are an easy scapegoat.
In the US, this paradigm is exacerbated by secular changes that serve to compound and amplify such sentiments. Critically, reproductive rates in different groups have led to demographic shifts that mean that, for the first time, caucasians are projected to no longer be the majority.
Additionally, migration within the country towards more urban areas is creating an urban/rural divide that spans attitudes, beliefs (and therefore political leanings) about a multitude of issues, including the pros and cons of immigration.
It is impossible to tackle this topic without addressing the unique gullibility and ignorance that also feed into American attitudes to immigration. All are exacerbated by the recent prominence of social media, fake news, short attention spans and lack of critical reasoning or respect for expertise.
In no-other developed country is creationism considered a viable alternative to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, climate change attributed to God’s Will, actions to help drug addiction seen as enablers or guns as a necessary defense against our own government.
Taken together, what is perceived as an existential threat to social status by American whites, due not only to demographic shifts but also improving educational standards amongst minorities and declining living standards for poorly educated or skilled caucasians, created the perfect conditions for a Trump presidency and his continuing unfounded attacks on immigrants as terrorists, drug smugglers, murderers and rapists and parasites on American taxpayers.
While none are true, many appear to resonate with and feed the prejudices of around 30 per cent of the population.
What is true however is that elements of US immigration policy are no longer fit for purpose and do require a long overdue overhaul. For example, over 10 million “undocumented “ (illegal) immigrants live here including many children who are Americans by any other measure.
Additionally, a system designed to handle single men coming to the country as economic migrants is ill suited to handling a large influx of families with young children seeking asylum and refugee status.
Sadly, the nation’s divisions, reflected in government, including unparalleled partisanship in Congress and a president whose survival depends on sowing division, make it increasingly unlikely that any much needed and broadly supported changes will happen any time soon.
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