State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Immigration and American Values

As a student of sustainability policy, management, and education, I try to write about the things I know the most about. Today I am doing something different and instead writing about my home country, America, a place I love and a people who somehow always manage to come through in the final hour. In recent weeks we saw an inept American government separate young children from their family. This sad excuse for an immigration policy (“zero tolerance”), was hastily formulated and incompetently administered. It is morally bankrupt and inexcusable. We heard tapes of little children wailing for their parents and pictures of children behind fences sleeping under foil blankets.

But then America rose up in revulsion and said, we may disagree on immigration policy but this country does not do this to little children. Even the tough guy in the Oval Office had to back off. There will be no rounding up of our families in the middle of the night. My neighbors from all the places I’ve lived simply won’t tolerate it. I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York; Manhattan; Long Beach, New York; Franklin, Indiana; Buffalo, New York; Morgantown, West Virginia; Arlington, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; and Washington, D.C.—and my neighbors have never been cruel people. The slow slide to authoritarianism may still come, but not this way.

It’s true that some Americans respond viscerally to the call to seal the borders and oppose all immigration. But most, like me, want an orderly and fair immigration process; we treasure the immigrants among us and recognize their importance to our culture and our economic well-being. All four of my grandparents were immigrants. I wouldn’t say America welcomed them with open arms, but they came to America, joined family already here, formed communities, started businesses, and raised their children. My grandparents’ eight children all had children of their own, and my family in some small way has contributed to building this country. Had my grandparents not come to America when they did, the odds are we would have joined six million other Jews that perished in the Holocaust. I will always be the grateful grandchild of American immigrants.

America is a two-way street. You give and you get. Americans know in their heart, as John F. Kennedy wrote in his famous book of the same title, that America is a nation of immigrants. Some immigrants were brought here against their will as slaves, others were chased by hatred, and others came for the opportunity. The Native Americans lost their land, and often their lives, and the world gained this imperfect sanctuary for refuge. America’s door was never completely open, and has always been flawed, in part because some of us forget where we came from. Some try to pretend that the next wave of immigrants lacks the qualities that their grandparents had.

But most people get it. They see the contribution that hard-working immigrants make to our communities. We see immigrants in our workplaces, in our restaurants, on the subway, everywhere. Most Americans see immigrants as emerging Americans. These new Americans will influence America and change our culture as we change them. Pizza, sushi, tacos, and Greek yogurt didn’t come from New Jersey. Our arts and culture combine pieces from every part of the planet—that is what makes American jazz, country, and rock music so creative. We may not be a melting pot, but we certainly are a unique combination of people and cultures.

And most of us treasure our children and family life above everything. Wherever you are born and wherever you settle, family is a universal human value, and it is certainly a central American value. When the president parades the victims of immigrant crime at a press conference, when he complains about the mythical danger immigrants pose to America, he is at his dishonest, manipulative worst. It is disgusting, shameful and inaccurate. Immigrant crime rates are far lower than the crimes committed by those born here. The data is clear, and the fear-mongering is beneath the dignity of the presidency.

Another value that we possess but sometimes seem to forget is tolerance: the idea that you may live very differently than me, but as long as you don’t harm me or make me do what you do, then you have the right to do as you please. We do not impose our culture on newcomers or anyone else for that matter. We hope that over time, the drive for success in our broader society will convince you and your kids to accept elements of America’s culture, language and way of life. If not, like the Amish in Pennsylvania, or the Hasidim in Brooklyn, you are left alone to pursue your own religion and culture.

A third American value, that is far stronger than is often understood, is charity, and an open heart to help those in need. There are deep ideological differences about the role of government in assuring an economic and social safety net, but our culture frowns on those who do not help people in need. You are expected to look in on an elderly neighbor. If a child is crying along on a park bench it is not OK to simply walk by. If we see someone in need we lend a hand.

These core American values of openness to new neighbors, tolerance, and the importance of family and charity are hard-wired into our culture. Some may cheer at rallies to build a wall and respond to demonization of immigrants with hoots and screams. But most know people from other parts of the world, from work, at the gym, from school, from the little league, and they know that diversity is a source of America’s strength.

We have suffered under a national political deadlock about immigration for a generation. While this has been going on, most of America’s population growth has been due to immigration. About 40 percent of the people living in New York City were born outside the United States. If you add to that foreign students, diplomats, tourists and undocumented workers, well over half of New York City’s 8.5 million people were not born here. New York’s dynamism and energy comes from the presence of so much diversity in a single space. It is a metaphor for the emerging world culture and world economy. My home city’s comeback from near bankruptcy was built on the backs of immigrants.

The current president hopes to turn back the clock, and make American great again by rebuilding low-margin businesses like coal and steel and limiting immigration to a trickle. That’s a losing strategy. We are in a brain-based economy, and he still thinks we’re in one based on brawn. We need to attract the world’s hardest working, most ambitious and smartest people. We want them to live and work here and become as American as they want to be. Some may never assimilate, sending money home and returning there themselves. Sometimes to attract the smart engineer, we will need to allow her to bring her less-talented brother, or her beloved mother.

But even if immigration wasn’t critical to our economic well-being, the value of welcoming newcomers and diversity is central to our national identity. The comment you heard over and over again when children were separated from their guardians at the border was, “that is not us.” “That’s not how America does things.” The revulsion was instantaneous, non-partisan, and nonideological. That policy was an affront to America’s core values.

Donald Trump is a masterful self-promoter, and a man of ambitious and relentless persistence. But the American character carries its own persistent core values. Taking children from their parents violated those core values. And even this president had to take heed.

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