A Publication of WTVP

America is a nation of immigrants. People came to the American shores in stages, starting with Native Americans who first came to the North American continent from northern Asia nearly 20,000 years ago. But almost no movement of people occurred from any other direction until the 16th century, when Spanish explorers, traders, and conquerors came to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and is now California. Few actually stayed. English people came through exploration, as well as a desire for religious and political freedom.

My family came in 1660 from England to find freedom in the Massachusetts colony, and then to Connecticut to settle. Since then, many people from Europe came in various waves in the late 18th century into the early 20th century. Africans came as forced immigrants—slaves—from the mid-18th century onward. Primarily since World War II, people have come from Asia. Since the 1970s, more people have come from Africa and the Arab world. But people keep on coming to the United States to live and work.

There’s a great controversy in congress and among U.S. citizens about immigration policy and practice. In particular, controversy surrounds legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and from Central and South America. Men and women (and often, children) slip through our border with Mexico and disappear into the United States to find work, often in agriculture or basic blue-collar responsibilities like cleaning, yard work, and other jobs Americans seem not to want, including assembly work and meat packing.

Some U.S. citizens are dead set against illegal immigration because they claim Mexicans are taking jobs away from Americans—even when Americans show little enthusiasm for the kinds of jobs the immigrants take. They also say these immigrants show no respect for U.S. law and policy. American businesses, however, are very quiet when it comes to negative opinions. They want and need these workers in practical ways because they’re the only ones that’ll take some of the basic jobs.

So the issues seem to be drawn in sharp contrast. Some opponents of illegal immigration seek to seal the border between the United States and Mexico. Others try to “fly the flag” and remind fellow citizens how un-American it is to allow such immigration. In a way, this is nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, people who made it to these shores earlier try to show how the latest immigrants shouldn’t be welcome. Also, not all immigrants have been legal in all instances. While growing up, I can think of lots of immigrants who came from Eastern Europe who were smuggled into the United States. But somehow that was OK because they were escaping Communism.

Yet there’s an ethical problem on both sides of the immigration question. For those who (quietly) try to allow people from other countries to “slip” into the United States, there’s a major question: is it fair to go outside of the legal process, and to give people the ability to come into this country on their own terms? On the other side, the question is are we trying to seal our borders and prohibit people we don’t like from coming into this country? These are legitimate questions.

From a moral standpoint, we can ask the questions another way. Is it ethical to exclude some, but to let others in, and maybe to show favor to some people but not to others? And is it ethical to disregard the immigration laws and to enter the United States when and where we want, on our own terms? Does everyone have to obey the same laws and follow the same policies, or are some more acceptable than others? We haven’t thought through these questions in a long time; how we answer them will make a real difference in how we treat people who come into the United States for whatever reasons.

Once people find their way into the United States, it’s very hard to get them out. I can’t remember a time when we tried to exclude an entire group of people from coming into the United States to find a better life. Now we’re trying to do exactly that. And there’s no easy solution to the problem. I wonder what my English immigrant ancestors would say.  IBI