América continues to be a land of immigrants and opportunities stained by the concomitant reactions to who belongs here and who doesn't. Ranging from welcoming to hateful "Know Nothings" attitudes, the arguments for and against newcomers have been the same throughout history, as well as the myths: "They are criminals! They are taking our jobs! They are a financial burden! They don't want to learn our ways! They must return to their countries!" At the heart of every stage has been our effort to define ourselves, unfortunately out of fear, ignorance, and aggression.
Once the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture established itself as the dominant one generations ago, negative forces coalesced against "foreigners" in crescendo. After depriving "The Peoples" of their land, English settlers out of prejudice, intolerance, fear of loosing control, and xenophobia - excluded the Dutch, the French, the Germans, and the Irish as these people struggled with assimilation, religious intolerance, scapegoating, violence, providing for their families, and legislative controls. Once acculturated, however, Northern and Western Europeans did the same thing against Southern, Central and Eastern Europeans, and all of them eventually victimize Asians, Africans, and Central and South Americans.
Current sentiments against undocumented immigrants add one more chapter to this trend of exclusionary practices. However, history doesn't have to repeat itself; it can be rewritten. As we pass through another threshold, we don't need to resort to the adversarial mode of nativism to affirm who we are. It's about time the "us" versus "them" pattern is substituted by more educated and humane alternatives. Let's not forget that the peoples coming here have faces, dreams, and painful stories to share, just like us.
A conscious effort to analyze the immigration phenomenon in light of our past has to transcend the mistakes of our ancestors, minimize conflict and suffering, seek mutual benefits, and work towards comprehensive solutions. History is there to teach us.
How we treat incoming groups has to be civil as well as our discourse. Finding spaces to share power and privileges; respecting differences; seeking common good and the truth; regulating wisely the dynamics of economic supply and demand and the migration flow; enforcing laws objectively and tempered with love and justice; and engaging in constructive dialogue might help us brake the spell of discriminatory past conduct.
What will the payoff be if we stop the cycle of irrational hostility towards new sojourners? We'll discover who we truly are as we rewrite the plot of our history together. Only then shall the true American is us emerge.
Rev. Aquiles Martínez, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Religion at Reinhardt College Waleska, GA.
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