America Can Be a Nation of Immigrants and a Nation of Laws

“My dear fellow immigrants,” with these words President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent greetings to the annual convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution, after the organization banned the great black contralto, Marian Anderson, from singing at their Constitution Hall in 1939 simply because of the color of her skin.

Marian Anderson chose the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver her concert just days later, appropriately ending the concert with “God Bless America.” Turning hate and ignorance into love and brotherhood is what marked the works of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Marian Anderson at the site of our American memorial to the Great Emancipator.

You ask, what’s that to do with the immigration debate raging these past two weeks in Washington, D.C., and on talk radio all over America?

Well, to begin with, the voices of Roosevelt and Lincoln, preaching and practicing the American motto of “E pluribus unum,” are all but absent these days, except for a few of those talking about fixing our broken borders and disabled immigration policies in humane, compassionate and progressive ways.

As President George W. Bush recently reminded us, America can still be a nation of immigrants while remaining a nation of laws if we treat people in the way we would want to be treated and find the right way of enforcement. The most troubling aspect of this debate is the meanness of spirit toward immigrants, particularly those of Latino or Hispanic heritage. But, it’s nothing new, as the Irish, Poles, Germans, Italians, Asians and others were treated the same decades and decades ago.

According to Michael Barone’s “The New American,” a closer look at the Great Migration of the 19th century reveals striking parallels to the current circumstances of the American immigration. The examples of two groups often cited by modern day advocates of restricting immigration – the Irish and the Italians – are particularly instructive.

During the last half of the 1800s and into the 20th century, more than 4 million Irish men, women and children immigrated to the United States. Fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s and seeking economic opportunity, Irish immigrants settled in urban areas starting in the Northeast and eventually spreading across the country. Many of these early immigrants did not speak English. One estimate held that at least one-third of them spoke little English.

What worries me first as an American and second as a partisan Republican from the Lincoln wing of our party, is the Republican Party. The House of Representatives is in danger of doing to itself in 2006, what it did in California in 1996 with Proposition 187 – turning into an anti-immigration party in a rather ugly way.

The House version of immigration reform would be a prescription for electoral and political disaster, not unlike what happened to our party in the presidential election of 1964, when Barry Goldwater, our nominee for president, voted against the Civil Rights Act.

The talk of 700 miles of walls, fences, federal troops, coupled with sending 11.5 million men, women and children back to their “home” countries is the equivalent of “police state” tactics advocated by the likes of Lou Dobbs and others who are not true leaders in the footsteps of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.

Yes, we must control our borders with more and smarter technology, specially trained border security agents, and better enforcement in the private workplace. Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised if immigrants don’t respect our laws if our immigration laws aren’t respected or even enforced.

We must pass an immigration reform package that not only works, but is reasonable, respected and responsible.

I believe the Senate Judiciary Committee bill recognizes the realties of a “guest worker” program that provides our country with the workers we need, while requiring workers and employers to operate with transparency.

The Senate bill also creates a path to permanent citizenship that will, no doubt, be labeled by critics as “amnesty,” when far from it, it includes enforceable penalties and makes punishment fit the crime. Those who commit felonies should be deported, but most of our so called “illegals” are in America for freedom, family and faith in our “dream” of equal opportunity.

And by the way, the federal law that caps highly skilled H1B workers at 65,000 a year, down from 195,000 in 2003, has led to a “brain drain” from the U.S. to Canada. This is counterproductive and counterintuitive to a 21st century, high-tech, globalized economy.

As I wrote in 2004, “Looking to the fall campaign season, I am hopeful that other Republicans will stand against anti-immigrant policies, stand up for free trade and stand behind wealth creation for the little guy by allowing workers to put a significant part of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts, where they can acquire assets, property and the capital necessary to launch their version of the American Dream.