America is exceptional, and that includes the way we treat immigrants

PoliticsIllegal ImmigrantsImmigrationReligion and BeliefRome (Italy)Crime, Law and JusticeEgypt

Dear Scholar,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your thoughts about the current debate over illegal immigrants and how to approach the nettlesome challenge they represent to us -- and we to them.

It was good of you to rehearse some classical history for me, explaining how other societies, our forerunners as democracies (Athens) and republics that acquired an empire (Rome), dealt with their immigrants. All in the course of challenging my view that some way to citizenship should be left open for our millions of illegal immigrants. As you point out:

"Many eminent Greeks lived in Athens for decades, but could never become Athenian citizens, because by law the Athenians only granted full citizenship rights as an honor or vote of thanks to foreigners who had performed some extraordinary service to the whole city. The Romans, always cautious even while extending their empire, set up a very complicated system of grades of citizenship, which encountered difficulties but overall achieved its goal of not granting citizenship to large groups of people until they had been thoroughly Romanized. I do not think the drastic curtailment of citizenship practiced by the Greeks is required, but I do think the Romans understood rightly that it is unwise to grant voting rights to people who imperfectly understand the system."

Your conclusion: "I do not see why provisions cannot be made for foreigners to work in the U.S. on a long term basis without the promise of citizenship. In fact I believe that illegal entry to the country should permanently bar the possibility of obtaining citizenship."

That way, foreigners with rare skills or whose labor is in demand (like farm laborers, chicken pluckers and others who do jobs it isn't easy to get Americans to do) could contribute to the economy as resident aliens.

All your points are worth considering, Dear Scholar, and, even more, worth rebutting. For this is not Athens or Rome (you will find my geography impeccable), and reasoning by analogy is always dangerous.

This is a society with an ethos of its own, stemming from a history of its own as a nation of immigrants. To some of us this is still the Puritans' city upon a hill, a light unto the nations.

Your references to Greco-Roman civilization are impressive, but maybe there's a reason America has been called exceptional. For the roots of our ideas go back not only to Athens but to Jerusalem.

If you must look for examples of how societies dealt with the aliens in their midst, you might consider one that shared the ancient world with Greece and Rome, often enough uneasily, and had quite different views and a quite different Inspiration -- ancient Israel. A remnant of how it approached the challenge of its resident aliens, Ger Toshav in Hebrew, can be found in Scripture, particularly in those passages cited at every Passover seder, with its regular refrain:

"You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ... When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him but love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ... You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt."

Given that spirit, there is no problem in the maze of challenges facing this country and its illegal immigrants that cannot be solved. Where there's good will, there's a way, and we should have found it years ago.

Yes, American citizenship is too valuable a legacy and responsibility to be handed out lightly. There must be requirements: years of residence, education in good citizenship, a clean record, a basic knowledge of the English language or at least the American version of it, the ability to support oneself, a substantial fine if the alien came here illegally, and so methodically on. But the prize is worth the race, or rather the obstacle course.

The Ger Toshav in Jewish law, or resident alien, also had to meet certain minimal requirements to qualify for that status, like giving up idolatry and accepting the law of the land.

My own family provides a kind of capsule history of American immigration: My mother, a country girl from Poland, rode the rails to Warsaw, where she waited 36 hours in front of the American embassy for a visa, then came to this country in steerage. She was prepared to wait for years for citizenship, and did.

She managed to get her own mother to this country 20 years later. My grandmother, who would live with us the rest of her life, would arrive August 31, 1939, just in the nick of time for an aging Jewess to get out of Hitler's Europe before all Hell, aka the Second World War, broke loose. She would remain a resident alien all the rest of her Yiddish-speaking life. I can remember dropping the little postcard into the mailbox once a year certifying her whereabouts.

It's a complicated mix, the history of American immigration, just as the future of American immigration doubtless will be. But creating two classes of Americans, foreign workers and real citizens, Americans first- and second-class, has never worked in this country -- as our long and painful experience first with slavery and then with Jim Crow should have taught us.

Please, not again.

Inky Wretch

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.

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