I don’t often feel a connection to my heritage – that is, any real connection to any of the countries my family has come from. My family has been in this country for over 100 years, and they came from across northern Europe. We eat some Norwegian desserts at Christmas, but I don’t know if that’s more because of our heritage or because they taste good. Any pride I take in my potential Viking ancestry comes more from my connection to the Minnesota Vikings than to any actual lineage. In fact, I identify my heritage more closely with Minnesota than I do with any European country.
I think many of us have forgotten that we were once strangers in a strange land. Nearly all Americans aren’t native to this land; our ancestors came to this place from elsewhere. It still strikes me, when thinking about the American Revolution, that the independence gained was not that of the native people from the colonizers, as with so many other revolutions, but rather of the colonizers from their home country. There was no return to our ancestral home, no reclamation of some sacred land; there was new people coming to a new place (or rather, a new place for them).
Over the course of American history, there has been a continued suspicion and fear of outsiders coming into our country and changing our way of life. It is somewhat amazing to me that this position can be held un-ironically in the face of our history. How is it that we live here? Didn’t the vast majority of our ancestors come here from somewhere else, with their own dreams and aspirations, to effect change for the betterment of their (and our) lives? How quickly we forget the citizens of our past with ancestry in northern and western Europe who thought other Europeans couldn’t adapt to live in this country, much less immigrants from other parts of the world.
I have often thought about God’s call to the ancient Israelites to treat the foreigner well because of their national memory of being strangers and slaves in Egypt; they were to treat the foreigner well because they remembered what their treatment had been like in Egypt. This thought has been applied to the American immigration system, that we should treat the foreigner well because of our memory of being strangers in a strange land. Not only do I think we have forgotten this memory, but we also differ from Israel in that we did not return to the land of our ancestors. In many ways we are still residing in a strange land.
I will say that I have not always thought this way. A younger me held very strongly to the need to do immigration the “right,” legal way. After having learned about the history of our system (along with many other things), I came to the realization that our system was built on fear, on a desire to keep others out, to make it harder for them to come to this country. The only “legal” way to come to America before 1885 was to get here, and the only country excluded from that system for almost 40 years after that year was China.
Current me does not set aside the question of legality; I still have concern for doing things legally and for consequences for breaking those rules (I have a very rule-follower oriented make-up). However, I think many of our approaches to immigration (historical and modern) are and have been wrong. Just because something was done a certain way for a long time doesn’t make it right (the open-border style of our immigration policy, if you will, for the first hundred years of our country’s history), and I absolutely understand the desire and need for a different system. However, two thoughts arise from the thought of changing the system.
First, if you have a desire to claim that immigrants today should do things legally “the way my family did,” you need to know the system your family came through. If you’re white and your family was here before the 1920s, there weren’t really too many restrictions in place.
Second, I don’t think we have a system in place (or that many are currently calling for a system) that actually reflects our values (or what we claim our values to be). So many of us don’t realize the difficulties of actually getting through the process of immigrating to this country. So many of us don’t seem to understand that immigrants come here to make a better life for themselves, coming out of circumstances we could never imagine.How many of us would attempt to do the same for ourselves or our families if the roles were reversed? How many of our ancestors did this exact thing?
When contemplating why we have such a difficult time remembering our history, I think an easy, cop-out answer would be to point to our current, highly now-minded culture. This is not a wrong place to look, but it is in no way a complete answer to this problem. We can see throughout the history of our country the desire to keep this country “ours,” always fearing what “they” might do to our country, our home.
I realize that much of this post is a fairly broad view of a complex issue, and that there are several semi-disjointed thoughts contained here. I’m afraid that, at some level, I have difficulty approaching this topic (specifically, remembering our history), because I know that it’s difficult to think of “collective memory” when the memory of immigration is often not our own. I’m 4 generations removed from the trip to this country. For all intents, this is my native home, where I, my parents, and their parents were born. Unfortunately, a failure to understand our history is a failure to understand how we got to where we are today, how this connects to the present day, and how connected the current discussion is to our own personal histories. This most certainly isn’t the end of the discussion in this forum; hopefully it can serve as the starting point to understand the call to remember that we were strangers in a strange land, and what that means to us moving forward.