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Sue Lani Madsen: Declaration of Indepence should guide us on immigration reform

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …”

The political bands connecting us are fraying. Civil communication is unraveling and common ground is elusive.

As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence this Fourth of July, we need to return to the heritage that holds us together as a nation of immigrants.

Humans have been migrating since the first Australopithecus afarensis stepped out of Africa, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, and Creator let loose Coyote. All creation stories end with humans spreading across the Earth. All of us have a migration story, some older than others.

This is one of them.

She was the daughter of immigrants. Her father fled violence and instability, crossing many borders without his family. The family was separated while he labored to earn their passage. She arrived as a 3-year-old with her mother and older brother. No one spoke English at home, nobody needed to speak English in their urban neighborhood for shopping, worship services or keeping up with the local news.

She learned English by full immersion in overcrowded public schools, leaving school after the eighth grade to work full time as a nanny. She had stopped speaking her native language by the time she married a fellow immigrant, never teaching it to her children. Teaching the language had been outlawed when she was a young woman. Her native language had been the second-most-common language in the United States in her youth, but she raised her American children to speak English, including my father. She was part of the early 20th century non-English speaking mass migration out of Europe fleeing war and poverty and persecution.

Labor unions lobbied for restrictions. Demands for loyalty oaths and ugly public scenes pressured Congress to appoint a bipartisan commission in 1907 to study the dangers of unlimited, unassimilated immigration. The early progressive movement heavily influenced the 1911 Dillingham report, using the new field of social science to rank groups on their ability to assimilate into the mainstream culture, and quotas were set accordingly. By the 1920s, Asian immigrants were barred, along with unaccompanied children under 16 and anyone with physical or mental defects. It was an early version of a merit-based system.

The exclusionary laws on the basis of ethnic origin were uncomfortably unfair, leading to major immigration reform in 1965. New immigrants came fleeing war and communism in Asia, eastern Europe and Cuba. Criteria for legal admittance refocused on family reunification.

First-surge immigrants assimilated by learning the common language and history, basic elements of a common national heritage. Second-surge immigration was tied to the civil rights movement and the progressive movement’s shift to social justice. And in the name of social justice, multiculturalism and bilingual education made assimilation optional. “Press 1 for English” became the symbol of a new kind of uncomfortably separate-but-equal society, building resentment of immigrants.

And now we face a third surge on our southern border, creating pressure for reforming immigration again. Like previous waves, migrants come for many reasons. Unlike previous waves, massive illegal entry complicates the debate.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence begins with this revolutionary statement of equality as the goal of a new nation, and our common heritage rests on equality under the law. Demanding law enforcement overlook migrants wading the Rio Grande or overstaying visas is unfair to legal immigrants who patiently wade through a bureaucracy that needs reforming.

Preserving the political bonds that hold us together is necessary for our survival as a country. Next-generation immigration reform must balance family reunification with rewarding merit, reaching out with compassion and prosecuting unlawful entry. This Independence Day, take the pledge to preserve our heritage.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

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