Insistence from the Trump White House on building a wall along the Mexican border. Protest marches from angry Americans about the forced separation of migrant families. Continued agony about the destiny of children admitted into the country illegally but reared happily in American communities. Emerging concerns from conservative religious leaders newly questioning the immigration policies of an administration they embraced.
For generations, the United States described itself as a “Nation of Immigrants,” which actually was the title of a 1958 book praising new Americans written by Senator John F. Kennedy, whose eight great-grandparents crossed the Atlantic from Ireland. But the current imbroglio over immigration stands as a symbol of multiple aspects of contemporary America: ambiguity over its immigrant heritage, frustration over its congenital political impasse and confusion about the way forward.
This week, the House of Representatives, which had postponed consideration of immigration legislation because of tensions within the controlling Republican Party, finally takes up the issue.
And though Republicans reached a difficult compromise to permit the debate to proceed, there was growing uncertainty over the weekend about whether President Donald Trump would sign a bill House Speaker Paul Ryan embraced as a “very good compromise.”
The President’s remarks – criticizing the compromise, then sending a contradictory tweet – served only to increase the difficulties that lawmakers face in sculpting legislation to satisfy demands for tighter border restrictions along with competing demands to preserve the national legacy of welcoming immigrants.
This week’s debate is a symbol of the very kinds of vital issues the political leaders of the contemporary United States simply cannot bring to resolution. Immigration underlines the abiding stress points in the Trump years, with a fractured Republican majority that can’t pass the legislation it promised its constituents colliding against a Democratic opposition mired in moral indignation and political impotence.
As a result, this week’s debate will be especially acrimonious, with contention in several dimensions.
There will be the customary tension between Republicans and Democrats, to be sure. But the debate also will pit Trump-style Republicans against party regulars, one of the overriding themes of the past decade; House members facing difficult re-election battles in November against those with safe seats and no concerns about backlash, mostly from moderates in the suburbs; and religious conservatives closely aligned with Mr. Trump against other religious conservatives, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who are horrified by the notion of families being separated and the denial of asylum for those vulnerable to political punishment or gang warfare.
Indeed, all the tensions that animate and frustrate U.S. politics will be at work in this week’s House debate.
Immigration is an unusually searing issue for Americans, whose country, like Canada, was formed by what Mr. Kennedy, who before his 1963 assassination hoped to win a major immigration overhaul, called “the interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life.”
Immigration defined the composition of the United States and immigration legislation determines the demographic future of the country.
One of the reasons this immigration debate – like its predecessors in 1882 (excluding Chinese immigrants), 1924 (reducing the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe) and 1952 (basing immigration quotas on the 1920 census) – strokes such passions is that it pierces the national folklore. The George Washington University professor Tyler Anbinder ended the prologue of his magisterial 400-year history of immigrant New York by writing, “The story of immigrant New York is the story of dreams.”
That is a persistent element of the American character, for in remaking immigration policy, lawmakers in the United States have tended to seek to remake America literally in their own image.
“The ‘nation of immigrants’ idea has always been an exercise in national nostalgia,” said Hiroshi Motomura, a UCLA School of Law expert on immigration. “Every generation seems to have its anxieties and debates about immigrants. Then the country absorbs those immigrants into society, the immigrants become Americans, and a sense emerges that we are a nation of immigrants. But around the same time, new immigrants show up, and there is new anxiety and new debate about them. So the ‘golden age of immigration’ always seems to have been one generation ago.”
But the strains – national pride mixing with national shame – are greater now than they have been since the McCarran-Walter Act was passed 70 years ago, amid Cold War concerns about Communist infiltration of the United States.
These tensions were underlined when the Associated Press reported over the weekend that nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents in a six-week period this spring, a policy defended by Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, who said, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.’’
The legislation the House will consider in the coming days would place children with their parents in detention facilities, although Democrats have indicated that the assurances of keeping families together are not tight enough. It also would permit children who were brought into the country illegally, known as the “Dreamers,” to remain in the United States under education and age requirements that almost certainly will be debated vigorously on the House floor.
‘’Immigration is what made the United States the United States, which is why this is so difficult,’’ said Hilary Weaver, a member of the Lakota nation who is co-director of the Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute at the University at Buffalo. “This is a country where people have come from around the world, though Canada has made more of an open door than Americans have. It becomes contentious when people worry there will be less for the people who are already here if new people arrive.
“But,” she added, “let’s remember that Indigenous people were here before the others were here, and Indigenous societies have always had ways of incorporating newcomers.”