“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The declaration goes on to list the colonists’ grievances against the king, their rejection of tyranny and their intent to “dissolve the political bands” with Great Britain. But it also contains a brief mention of the roots of the burgeoning American nation: “We have reminded them” — and by “them” the Declaration means “our British brethren” — “of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.”
Even then, although it was more homogeneous than it is today, America was a nation of immigrants. At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the vast majority of colonists had been born in the New World but were the descendants of settlers who had fled England and other European nations seeking new lives. Others — including eight of the 56 signers of the Declaration — were themselves born in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of Africans living in the new nation were, of course, not here of their own choice at all; they or their parents or their parents’ parents had been dragged across the ocean as chattel and deprived of the very rights with which the Declaration of Independence proclaimed they had been endowed by their creator. The only people who could reasonably consider themselves indigenous were the native people whose existing cultures the European settlers displaced.
In the 243 years since then, there has been a persistent tension between this nation’s founding dreams and self-perceptions, and the reality of its actions and practices. We have in the modern era led the world in resettling refugees yet we also have struggled with xenophobia and racism that have led us to policies of exclusion and deportation.
The original settlers arrived as “others” from lands with unfamiliar customs. But over time they began to treat newer arrivals from other cultures as “others.” The Irish faced this. Asians, particularly the Chinese, did too, as did Italians and other southern Europeans. But also Germans. White supremacy propelled many of those noxious beliefs and subsequent policies, but so did issues of class and religion.
We need to remember the benefits of immigration and the contributions of those who have come to this country from elsewhere.
Over the course of our history we have generally overcome these spasms of nativism but it’s been a seesaw between rejection and acceptance. After a period of relatively free and open immigration in the 18th and early 19th century, there was a backlash in the second half of the 1800s. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, was on the books from 1882 to 1943. Tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the Holocaust were admitted to the United States during World War II, but boatloads of refugees also were turned away and forced to return to Europe. Over the years, the United States also barred “idiots,” “lunatics” and ex-cons, as well as anarchists and others whose politics were deemed subversive or dangerous. The U.S. also banned people who were likely to end up financially dependent on the state.
Nevertheless, immigrants still came, with and without permission, gambling their futures on the promise in our founding declaration that all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Tens of millions of immigrants have arrived over the past century, and with a current foreign-born population of some 45 million people (regardless of legal status), the U.S. is home to more immigrants than any other nation in the world. About one in four people living in the U.S. is foreign-born or the child of immigrants. For many, the United States has been welcoming; many have found the freedom or economic security they were seeking. By one count, nearly 44% of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
The recent rise of white nationalism and the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment should worry all of us who believe in a pluralistic society in which diversity is viewed as a strength rather than a threat. E pluribus unum, as it says on our money.
Today, we can’t agree as a society whether to greet new arrivals — including those who come seeking asylum, as they are legally entitled to do — with open arms, or with a cold shoulder, a detention center and deportation. We can’t even agree on our rules for legal immigrants, much less for those who seek to come to the country illegally.
As the nation continues to debate its immigration policy, we need to remember the benefits of immigration and the contributions of those who have come to this country from elsewhere. Today, 13% of people in the country are foreign-born, about the same percentage who signed the Declaration of Independence. Our past is our present — and our future. That, too, is self-evident.