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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“This is a blessing from God.”

“I’ve always had to look behind my back. Now I don’t have to worry so much.”

“This is a very amazing moment.”

According to news reports, those sentiments — hope, relief, gratitude, joy — have been expressed by immigrants heartened by President Obama’s decision to delay deportation for as many as 4 million people who entered the country without papers. They are ordinary folks eager for a semblance of normalcy — the right to a driver’s license, the ability to get a job legally, the respite from constant worry — in the adopted country they now call home.

While Obama’s action has drawn withering criticism from his conservative critics, the president framed his decision as an attempt to keep families from being torn apart. According to the Migration Policy Institute, some 3.7 million adults who came into the United States without authorization have at least one child who was born here or has legal permanent status and has been here five or more years.

Those children are firmly ensconced in their communities, anchored in their schools or workplaces, and strangers to the nations in which their parents were born. They speak English; they surf the Internet; they obsess over the latest smartphone. In other words, they are as American as your kids and mine.

What sort of country would separate them from their parents or force them to leave? Why not embrace them for the vitality they bring to us?

Opponents of Obama’s executive order are given to a heavy reliance on the rules and regulations of permissible entry, the legal codes that govern borders and visas and citizenship. It’s certainly true that unauthorized immigrants have violated those statutes — stealing across a river, sneaking through a desert, ignoring a previously agreed-upon departure.

But surely there is something to be said for leniency, for mercy, for generosity toward those who have, after all, committed only a misdemeanor, which is how the law characterizes a first-time illegal entry. (Obama’s executive order pointedly excludes those who have committed felonies.)

That mercy ought to be freely meted out since Americans bear some complicity in the law-breaking, some responsibility for the unauthorized sojourns taken by so many gardeners, cooks and nannies, painters, ditch diggers and fruit pickers. Back in the go-go 1990s, we practically threw open the gates and invited in low-skilled workers who were happy to do the jobs that Americans didn’t want to do.

There was more than enough work to go around in an economy where the unemployment rate dropped to as low as 4 percent, and native-born laborers shunned sweaty work picking Vidalia onions, toting drain pipe and laying sod. Undocumented workers proved cheap and compliant, unable to complain when safety regulations were violated and wages were substandard.

So they came by the millions, in Democratic and Republican administrations. They stayed, they worked hard, they married and had children. They adopted our values and called this country their own.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a backlash would be swift and furious, especially after the economy turned sour and the middle class shrank. Besides, every immigrant wave in the nation’s history — whether Irish or Polish or Chinese — has provoked an eruption of anger and resentment.

This backlash has been building since at least the early aughts, when President George W. Bush tried to pass legislation that would give the undocumented legal status and a path to citizenship. Ultraconservatives in his party rebelled, even as business executives pleaded for a compromise that would satisfy their need for workers.

The resentment was seeded, in part, by the reality of demographic change — by, yes, the discomfort produced by racial and ethnic differences. Older Americans, especially, have recoiled at a country that grows browner and more diverse, where Spanish-language signs dominate some neighborhoods and soccer fields replace baseball diamonds. That, too, has happened before in our history as immigrants brought their customs and religions and languages.

But the nation adapted before, and we’ll adapt again. That constant rejuvenation is one of the nation’s strengths, that energy and vitality one of our advantages. We, too, ought to be grateful those immigrants are getting a shot at the American dream.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]

Photo: mar is sea Y via Flickr

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