Immigrants Put America First: In Coming Here, They Affirm Our Values

An Essay by Carlos Gutierrez, Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce

Immigrants enter the United States with dreams of a better life for themselves and their families.  Rather than posing a threat to our democracy, they reinforce and enrich the values that make America the country it is.

The United States is a country created and built by immigrants from all over the world. Throughout our history, immigrants seeking a better life have flocked to our shores — reinvigorating our labor force, enriching our cultural fabric, and making our democracy stronger.

Yet even though nearly all Americans are descendants of immigrants, we have often had a tempestuous relationship with newcomers. Whether because of nationalist sentiment, xenophobia, or simply fear of change, our country has at times enacted policies that have run contrary to American ideals. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 Immigration Act, or quota-based laws restricting immigration from certain parts of the world, are just a few examples of reactionary policies that gained wide support in the past.

Today we are living through a resurgence of these sentiments. At a time of rapid change driven by technology, globalization, and demographics, there are many Americans who are directing their fears toward immigrants, believing that they are changing the culture and values of the United States. We have seen how these fears translate into harmful policies: our politicians are promising to wall off our borders and threatening to deport undocumented immigrants who had been granted protection because they arrived in the United States as children.

At a time of rapid change driven by technology, globalization, and demographics, there are many Americans who are directing their fears toward immigrants, believing that they are changing the culture and values of the United States.

While each successive wave of immigration adds to the unique blend of cultures that define the United States of America, it is wrong to believe that immigrants pose any threat to American values. The truth is that today’s immigrants, just like our forefathers, arrive here seeking the ability to freely worship, to express themselves without fear of government retribution, and to chart their own economic destiny.

These immigrants, for whom the reality of oppression or lack of freedom is a not so distant memory, come not to undermine our values, but to embrace them. What better reaffirmation exists for the strength of our values than the validation we receive daily from people seeking to immigrate here?

Today’s immigrants, just like our forefathers, arrive here seeking the ability to freely worship, to express themselves without fear of government retribution, and to chart their own economic destiny.

It is true that America does not look like what it did in the past. Between 2000-2015, Latinos accounted for more than half of the country’s total population growth.  During that same period, the country’s Asian population grew by 72 percent.

Yet America’s culture has always been a shifting kaleidoscope. What has remained constant is our values – a common belief in liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. This is how, out of many, we become one.

Our diversity also contributes to our economic vitality.  Over half of the startups worth over $1 billion were founded by foreigners. These companies create jobs, promote innovation, and contribute to our country’s economic productivity.

Instead of weakening our values and democracy as some may claim, immigrants enrich and revitalize our institutions and beliefs. While people may arrive as Mexicans, Russians, Ethiopians, or Chinese, over time they and their families become Americans.

Instead of weakening our values and democracy as some may claim, immigrants enrich and revitalize our institutions and beliefs. While people may arrive as Mexicans, Russians, Ethiopians, or Chinese, over time they and their families become Americans.

This does not mean they forget where they came from; rather, it is because of their past that they so passionately embrace American values. It is why after centuries of continued immigration, the United States is stronger than ever.

Immigrants to the United States landing at Ellis Island, New York, circa 1900. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In today’s divisive political environment, we must learn from the mistakes of our past and not let fear dictate our policies. The only way that our system, based on the foundations of freedom, democracy, and justice, will prevail is if we continue to enrich it by welcoming new stakeholders in the American dream.

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to uphold the values of our forefathers. Almost 250 years after our founding, the United States remains the world’s beacon of hope. Let’s not extinguish liberty’s torch.

 

Carlos Gutierrez was the U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush. This essay was originally published in The Catalyst.

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