I have never understood the term “immigrant.” Before writing this attempt at a coherent article, I had to check my dictionary for the difference between emigrate and immigrate. (For those who also get confused, to emigrate is to leave your country and to immigrate is to move to another country.)
The source of my confusion is not the word immigrant itself, but rather what we imply when we say immigrant. Some people define an immigrant as an outsider, while others define immigrants as new members of a community. Some even define immigrants as threats to the “natives.”
The United States will always fail when it attempts immigration reform, because it fails to address the main issue: the psychology of the natives. Immigrants are often still treated as outsiders no matter how assimilated they become in their new society.
As most liberal-talking heads have been saying more and more frequently nowadays, the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” That is a valid statement. I would go even further, and say that we are actually a species of immigrants.
At one point or another in your ancestors’ history, there were immigrants. Whether it was because of war, lack of resources or opportunities, religious or ethnic persecution or something else entirely, your ancestors left one area and went to another. In most families, these changes in location probably happened quite a lot.
In almost all societies, there has been some form of an aversion to immigrants. As most Fox News commentators like to remind us, their Irish ancestors “were immigrants who faced discrimination too!” True as this may be — over time, immigrants who were whiter and more Americanized were more quickly assimilated.
Some immigrants are never able to fully assimilate, and are always treated as outsiders in the United States. Some people think that even immigrants with U.S. citizenship are still not truly Americans.
People get offended when outsiders don’t understand the United States. Maybe it’s because their questions hit a little too close to home. They ask, “How are you the land of the free but have a significant portion of your population in jail?” or “How can you believe in religious liberty and freedom, yet seem to prefer Christianity over just about every other religion?” The United States needs immigrants because without them, change would never occur.
Immigrants bring with them different ideas, customs and religions that may conflict with the “native” way of doing things. As most journalists know, it is always better to get a fresh set of eyes to look at your work before you submit it. It’s not because the other person is necessarily a better writer — it is because they will see the mistakes and shortcomings that you missed because of your infatuation with your own writing. This same idea holds true on a much larger scale.
However, before we can learn from immigrants, we need to end the aversion to them. By seeing them as “others,” we are limiting ourselves. We need to treat people as they deserve to be treated and welcome new ideas into our culture.
I will probably never understand the term immigrant or the significance people imply when they use it, but I do know that change needs to come.