For a phrase designed to inspire feelings of inclusion and acceptance, the familiar mantra “we are a nation of immigrants” makes many in the black community feel excluded and uncomfortable. And now that efforts to draft an immigration reform bill are in full swing in the Senate, we will be hearing this phrase — and other indicators of this narrative — a lot more often.
To be clear, I’m not insensitive to the need to remind people that immigration is a strong part of our national heritage during a time when anti-immigrant sentiment has transformed “give us your tired, your poor… yearning to breathe free” to “give us your best and your brightest and even then we may not let them stay.” But as we celebrate Black History Month, let’s remember the history of black people and how most of our ancestors came to this country, and let that history inform the way we talk about a need for immigration reform.
For a significant part of the black community, the story of black America is not a story of immigration; it’s a story of colonialism and slavery. Thus, not only does the idea that we are all immigrants ring false for many in the black community, it erases one of the worst blights on our collective conscience and creates a needless tension between the black community and those advocating immigration reform. Moreover, this tension is entirely preventable. It simply isn’t true that in order to protect the future of one marginalized community, we must present a sanitized version of the past of another.
While acknowledging that immigration has played an important role in defining America’s identity, can also acknowledge that most black Americans have family histories rooted in slavery rather than immigration, and that, nonetheless, the community has a deep and significant stake in comprehensive immigration reform. Our current broken immigration system allows racism to flourish, undermines families, and makes it impossible for those working hard in the shadows to ever enjoy full the full benefits of citizenship. While experiences of marginalized groups should never be compared or equated, the need for a fair, compassionate, and workable immigration policy may resonate more with a community whose history is so steeped in systematic oppression and discrimination. If anything, the black community is more likely to identify the need to end these injustices because of the history of slavery followed by Jim Crow and systemic racism; not in spite of that history.
We can’t absolve ourselves of the sins of our fathers by reimagining them not sins at all, but the romanticized growing pains of a young nation invoked now to congratulate ourselves on our revisionist history of inclusion. Grouping together this country’s relationship with black Americans under the same rubric with Elis Island and labeling it all “immigration” in order to advocate for immigration reform is a little like trying to end the war in Afghanistan by renaming Kabul “Iowa” so the troops would already be home. Not only does it miss the point of what we’re really talking about, but it ignores the experience of a group that has a direct stake in the problem we are trying to solve.
We need to talk about immigration reform in ways that are more sensitive and conscious of the different ways that different people came to this country. Maybe it won’t be as simple or as elegant as a “nation of immigrants,” but the history of America isn’t simple and it hasn’t always been elegant. And if the beauty of our founding documents is our birthright, surely, so too must be the ugliness of our founding deeds. We should embrace them all in a narrative about immigration that truthfully acknowledges our history and moves us forward, not out of fear for what we have been, but out of hope for what we can be.
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Originally posted at The Huffington Post.