Sunday, April 16, 2017

My new book on immigration explores an old American debate


My book “A Wary Welcome: The History of US Attitudes toward Immigration” is now available for sale.
Americans are in the midst of yet another acrimonious debate over immigration. Often the debate sounds more like a shouting match than a dialogue, as each side states its case more and more loudly.  The two sides characterize immigrants in different ways. Some describe legally recognized refugees and undocumented asylum seekers as families fleeing violence or starvation, in need of a safe haven and ready to share their gifts of skill, character, courage and cultural perspective with the country which gives them refuge.  Others describe them as alien hordes who do not understand our culture or our values, who are likely to become public charges at the expense of already-struggling native-born citizens, and who include large numbers of criminals and terrorists. 
Both sides claim that they seek to protect American values, but disagree deeply about what these values are.  Some describe the US as a nation of immigrants and of principles, a nation profoundly committed to human rights. Others describe the US as a nation of people of European descent and of laws, a nation profoundly committed to the preservation of its traditional institutions.  An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the different sides are describing different countries.
This debate isn’t new. This country was settled by successive waves of immigrants. As each group established itself, it began to wonder about newcomers.  I recently read an essay by a prominent clergyman arguing that the US was being invaded by overwhelming numbers of immigrants from countries with no history of democratic self-governance, with a strong history of terrorism, and with deep ties to a violent and barbaric religious law fundamentally incompatible with US law. The arguments sounded eerily similar to what I hear now from people upset about Muslim immigrants, but the piece was written in 1888 and the alien hordes were Irish Catholics.
I researched and wrote this book trying to understand the history of America’s mixed messages to and about immigrants.  The opening chapters give a basic historical overview of the three main flows of immigrants in to the US—across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Southern border. Later chapters look at how immigration affects and is affected by our views of race, labor and economic justice, national security, religion, and the old and thorny question of what it means to be an American.
 I don't claim to be entirely objective about this. While my ancestors have been in this
country for generations--many of them arriving before the country was formed--I've been blessed by friendships with immigrants and refugees, and I sometimes struggle to understand the fears of nativists. But in this book I've tried to understand the concerns driving both sides of the discussion.

 Researching and writing it gave me a richer perspective on the debate happening now—and some qualified hope that we may work through this time of fear and division, as we have done through earlier panics. I hope that this perspective may offer something of value to readers.  

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My new book on immigration explores an old American debate

My book “A Wary Welcome: The History of US Attitudes toward Immigration” is now available for sale. Americans are in the midst of yet...