The Speaker of the House, Navajos, and Who We Are

I am one of the progressives whose position on immigration policy stems from concerns about our country's social structure, social cohesion and population growth. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is an immigration enthusiast not troubled by such concerns.

Here is what Ms. Pelosi said on Thursday as she affirmed her commitment to "comprehensive" reform that would greatly expand immigration to our country.

"This, to me, is who we are as a country. Immigration has been a constant reinvigoration of America. Every person who comes here with their aspirations for a better future for their family, that commitment of making the future better for the next generation is a very American idea. So all of them who come with their enthusiasm for the future make America more American."

As I read that comment, I thought of another sweeping assertion of moral authority in an emotional policy dispute. I learned about it in the 1970s, while working on a book about a bitter dispute between the Navajo and Hopi Tribes over high-desert rangeland east of the Grand Canyon. Congress ultimately sought to resolve the dispute with a massive program to relocate Navajos from land partitioned to the Hopis.

One of the secondary issues was Navajo overgrazing of the range, which had caused devastating erosion. According to government experts as far back as the 1930s, the danger was so great that if the flocks were not greatly reduced, the land would not be able to sustain the Navajos.

This idea was offensive to traditional Navajos, for whom sheep were an absolute good, providing food, clothing and credit at the trading post. Anthropologist Gladys Reichard put it this way:

"The Navajo, particularly the women are 'sheep-minded.' From the first white crack of dawn to the time when the curtain of darkness descends they must consider the sheep. Yes, and even beyond."

This world view, holding that sheep were a gift from the gods, had no room for the concept of overgrazing. Traditional Navajos reasoned that if the range was being stripped of its vegetation, that was because there wasn’t enough rain. And if rain was scant, that was because humans weren’t living and praying in ways that were pleasing to the deities.

Only after great trauma did progressive Navajos, who embraced the concept of carrying capacity and understood the long-term implications of overgrazing, prevail. Strict limitations on livestock ownership were imposed on each family.

Like traditional Navajos offended by the idea that there could be too many sheep, Nancy Pelosi recoils from the notion that immigration needs to be curtailed to fit our society's own, difficult to quantify, carrying capacity. She thinks like the traditional Navajos for whom stock reduction programs were mean-spirited and immoral.

Ms. Pelosi's immigration certitude last week was nothing new. Back in March she declared immigration enforcement raids "un-American" because they divide families. Her commitment to the concept of family unification is reflective of that part of "comprehensive" reform that would vastly expand immigration by ensuring that all immigrants, even those who come as temporary workers in low-skilled jobs, would be guaranteed the right to bring their families with them.

Progressives like me consider the pressure these immigrants would place upon our social safety net. We consider the ever-expanding circle of their relatives who would stream to the U.S. from desperate corners of the world for decades to come. We ponder the Census Bureau projections showing they would be the principal engine of demographic growth that could push our country's population well past a half billion by the end of this century.

We wish we didn't hear such moral absolutism from the Speaker of the House.