What Does a 'Nation of Immigrants' Mean?

More than many think, and keeping it that way means controlling it. Take it from Barbara Jordan.

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 26, 2021

The president titled his immigration campaign document "The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants", and has since used the phrase "nation of immigrants" in an attempt to justify his plan to change the descriptive noun "alien" to "nonimmigrant" in the law. To explain what the term means (and what it doesn't), I turn — as I have in the past — to the late Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas).

Jordan was already a constitutional and civil-rights icon in 1993 when President Bill Clinton appointed her to be the chairwoman of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. She was diligent in her work up to her untimely death at the age of 59 in January 1996. She herself used the phrase in her September 11, 1995, opinion piece in the New York Times captioned, "The Americanization Ideal".

That brief column should be included in our national pantheon of documents, because it is up there with Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in the way that it succinctly defines and illustrates the principles upon which this country was founded, and rests. And, like those two speeches, it is a call to all Americans to live up to those principles.

She uses the phrase in the third paragraph of that piece, after noting the then-popular interest in immigration as an issue, and broadly touching on the then-existent shortcomings of the U.S. immigration system (most of which still plague the process). She asserts:

Legitimate concern about weaknesses in our immigration policy should not ... obfuscate what remains the essential point: the United States has been and should continue to be a nation of immigrants. A well-regulated system of legal immigration is in our national interest.

There are three main points in those two sentences: One, this is a nation of immigrants; two, it should remain such; and three, it is in our national interest for immigration to be "well-regulated". The first point is beyond cavil, and the second is still almost universally accepted.

The third point? Well, recent actions by the administration — and in particular its broad restrictions on ICE in arresting and removing aliens unlawfully present — seem to question the validity of that point.

In fact, a common use of the phrase of late has been to negate the idea that the United States even has the right — let alone the duty — to enforce our immigration laws at all.

You have heard some variation of the following refrain: "We're a nation of immigrants, and other than Native Americans, we are all immigrants or the ancestors of immigrants to this country, and therefore we have no moral authority to prevent any foreign national from living here, either."

The usual rejoinder to this is: "But my ancestors came here legally, and they should, too." There is a lot of legitimacy in this point, but I note that for much of American history, there were few immigration laws or limitations on entry.

Of course, during that period, travel to this country was exponentially more difficult and expensive than it is today — which itself restricted immigration — and there was little fiscal support for those who came once they were here. You could not call 911 on the prairie, or send your kids to public schools that did not exist.

Simply put, the United States is a much more attractive destination when you don't have to risk your life on a "coffin ship" (that would just dump you off at the port to make your own way) to get here. But that all requires a lot more discourse than Twitter feeds allow or Facebook users will read, and even then won't satisfy the most dogged of amnesty proponents.

Which is why the rest of Jordan's column is so important to understanding and framing the immigration debate today.

She alludes to the fact that Americans belong to no one ethnic group, and practice no common faith — bonds that tie together many other peoples. What has united immigrants and their descendants, she explains, is their commitment to certain "democratic ideals and constitutional principles".

She describes the embrace of those ideals as "Americanization" — hence the title of her piece — and explains:

Americanization means becoming a part of the polity — becoming one of us. But that does not mean conformity. We are more than a melting pot; we are a kaleidoscope, where every turn of history refracts new light on the old promise.

That is likely the most important point in the entire piece, and it merits reflection.

In the same way that Lincoln and King went back to the principles Jefferson laid out in the Declaration of Independence ("that all men are created equal" and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"), immigrants apply our core values by putting a new "refraction" on them.

In so doing, both the immigrant and our society are changed, almost always for the better. That, too, is a part of our shared American experience, and if you fail to grasp that, you likely have a poor grasp of our nation's history.

In much the same way Heraclitus explained that "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man", thanks to immigration, this is not the same country, and never has been. And that is why the true patriot (another word that gets overused) loves it so.

As Lincoln and King explained that Jefferson's words impose duties on the individual and society, Jordan explains that "The Americanization Ideal" imposes "mutual obligations" on both the immigrant and the citizen:

Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture. We must assist them in learning our common language: American English. We must renew civic education in the teaching of American history for all Americans. We must vigorously enforce the laws against hate crimes and discrimination. We must remind ourselves, as we illustrate for newcomers, what makes us America.

Jordan never explicitly detailed what exactly she meant by the "common core of American civic culture" (opinion editors then and now set strict word limits, so she probably never had the chance), but she did not have to, because you know (more or less) what she meant, and so do I.

Notions like self-reliance, respect for others and their property, defense of our institutions, and adherence to the law. Those are the values that allowed the pioneer to tame the wilderness, and still enable the Manhattan condo dweller to commute to Wall Street on the subway.

It is at this point that I should mention that this also means following our immigration laws to come and remain here to begin with. I am not putting words in Jordan's mouth here, because this is what she told Congress in February 1995:

To make sense about the national interest in immigration, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it. Therefore, we disagree, also, with those who label our efforts to control illegal immigration as somehow inherently anti-immigrant. Unlawful immigration is unacceptable.

That said, you can understand how this point might have been lost on aliens who have entered illegally or overstayed of late. In recent years, many of our elected officials (federal, state, and local) have been delinquent in actually respecting the immigration law themselves, and many have actively undermined it. Why would we expect foreign nationals to act differently?

Which is why recourse to the concept of the United States as a "nation of immigrants" by those who oppose immigration enforcement is so distasteful. It contorts our principles using base emotion to undermine our values. Note that in the paragraph before the excerpt above, Jordan explained: "We are a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law." She got that second clause; they still don't.

Well, you might say, that is just one core value, we have plenty of others so it's fine. No, it's not, because the immigration laws are written to ensure assimilation, by which the immigrant learns all of those other core values. There is a reason that the naturalization test includes a civics section, and an English-language one, too.

Worse, however, is the prospect that unregulated immigration will swamp that "American civic culture". The kaleidoscope that Jordan references is meant to turn at a certain speed — that is what the laws ensure. If it turns too quickly, it will become a blur.

To which, you may counter that you are not that crazy about those "quaint" notions I described above, and in particular our institutions, and that the American civic culture could use a good swamping. My first instinct is to reply "be careful what you ask for" (Robespierre, for one, wasn't a fan of revolution when it came for him), but that would miss a more important point.

Popular support for immigration is not a given, nor a law of nature. If immigration goes unchecked, the American people will turn against it, as Jordan explained in September 1994:

If we cannot control illegal immigration, we cannot sustain our national interest in legal immigration. Those who come here illegally, and those who hire them, will destroy the credibility of our immigration policies and their implementation. In the course of that, I fear, they will destroy our commitment to immigration itself.

That would be very, very bad, because, as I explained, immigration has helped make the United States the country that it is.

Note, however, that if you hate Donald Trump, and cannot understand how he used immigration as an issue to get elected, read that passage again. Jordan explained it better 26 years ago than any political science professor or pollster did in 2016, or has since.

So yes, I unequivocally state, the United States is a "nation of immigrants", and that has been an unalloyed good. Keeping it that way — and in particular maintaining popular support for the concept — however, means regulating and controlling immigration itself. But don't take it from me — take it from Barbara Jordan.