My school in downtown Minneapolis is built around a stunning atrium, a four-story glass-walled showcase looking out over a broad lawn and the Target corporate headquarters. Twice a year, new citizens of the United States are sworn in there as the sun streams in.
Looking on are friends and family of these new citizens — and also my students and colleagues on the faculty, who line the railings on the walkways overlooking the action. It’s hard not to watch, and I forgive my students for being a few minutes late for class. What makes the scene so compelling is the people themselves, the new Americans, wearing business suits, hijabs and native dress from all over the world. They look nervous, serious, as they stand to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Last Tuesday, I started watching just as they began calling out the nations the new citizens were from:
“Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belize, Bolivia...”
As each nation was called, the people emigrating from that country would rise, solemnly and often nodding slightly. It was a deeply moving moment, one which reminded me of an important fact: There was a sacrifice for each of these immigrants, a place left behind. Their sober response was fitting; they were choosing this country over another place where their families had deep roots, where they looked like most other people and knew the ways of the place.
These were, of course, legal immigrants — people who had gone through the lengthy process of obtaining citizenship. They are not the people at the center of our contemporary debate over immigration. I understand the problems with illegal immigration. I personally prosecuted illegal immigrants when I was a federal prosecutor. Still, watching these people choose our nation, I had two thoughts. First, we need to be respectful when we talk of immigrants and recognize their contributions to this society. Second, one way to address illegal immigration would be to broaden the pipeline to legal immigration and citizenship to people like those who filled our atrium Tuesday.
Donald Trump is right in saying that illegal immigration lowers job availability and wages for workers overall in the United States, though it’s likely a lesser factor than automation and improved productivity. The broad resentment of immigrants generally, though, sometimes expressed through violence, is unfounded. Studies show the children of immigrants — a generation more fully assimilated — are net contributors to the economy and in many places are notable entrepreneurs. Those who feel an inner rage at those who look like immigrants often have terrible aim; their main mistake is thinking there’s a “look” that is American. The son of an Iraqi immigrant who passes me on the street is every bit as American as I am and perhaps has done more for our country.
When I moved to Waco in 2000, the new house on Chateau Avenue had a lawn that needed mowing. So, on a sweltering August day, I got out my old-fashioned reel mower and got to work. As I shoved the old mower back and forth, a woman in a silver sedan glided to a stop in front of the house, rolled down her window and called out to me: “What are you doing?”
I was baffled. It seemed like a completely normal thing to mow the lawn. I looked back at the house to make sure nothing was wrong behind me, then turned back to her. “I’m mowing the lawn,” I told her.
She smiled, and then in a sympathetic voice said, “I know you’re new, but you can have a Mexican do that.”
Unused to the social dynamic in Waco, I was taken aback. I didn’t know how to respond, and she waved and drove off. At some level, though, what she said was true to her — I’m sure that an immigrant mowed her lawn and that it was relatively inexpensive. That was a part of the fabric of her life, something she took for granted.
Human societies are complicated things. That is especially true in one like ours, which is — with the exception of Native Americans — an entire nation built of immigrants. We are a carefully constructed stack of Jenga blocks, relying and resting on one another in ways we may not realize. We need to be careful in yanking out any one block and be respectful of those we share this land with.
And what of the new citizens in the atrium? Why not broaden the ability to choose this country and leave another behind? Broadening legal immigration is one rational way to address illegal immigration and allows us to admit and accept more of those people whose talents we need the most.
After being sworn in as Americans Tuesday, each of the new citizens lined up to have their picture taken with federal judge Patrick Schiltz, who performed the ceremony. He was beaming. And looking down, leaning over the railing, so was I.