In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote that all the non-English Europeans were just too different and posed a danger to social stability. Writing of Germans, he warned against allowing the formation in Pennsylvania of “A Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
That he could write so phobicly, without any sense of appreciation for the energizing and renewing potential of immigration, forces us to confront anti-immigration fervor as something more than the result of demagogic manipulation. There is a real and reasonable desire for social stability. Energy entering a system has the potential to blow up the system. Franklin saw the many and varied peoples who had settled America and overvalue their relative isolation one from the other. He did not have the 250 years of immigration history we possess. He did not bear witness to immigration and diversity driving the country’s growth, to help the nation defend itself, and then help secure peace and prosperity around much of the world.
We are not being asked here to be entirely altruistic. All we are being asked to do is to see the situation plainly, with an unjaundiced eye uncolored by fears instilled by demagogues who seek to benefit from riling resentment of those who are powerless to oppose them.
We are long past Franklin’s moment, and we are capable of opening our eyes and seeing what is really before us. An American today does not need to do as I did and walk to the border. An American today possessing the tools to separate fact from fantasy does not need to do as I did and reach through the slatted barrier to a hand on the other side to touch someone like themselves. An American today does not need to feel a warm, human touch that but for fate could be them. The woman whose hand I touched possessed an electricity, not for the harm she could do but because she represents so much possibility. She held her child with one hand and reached out to me with the other, and in so doing, crossed an inch of space and hundreds of years to make real and palpable her dream of living a better life. What she was already willing to do to realize that dream is proof enough of the great good we can do ourselves just by being uncowed.
Make no mistake – like the Berlin Wall built by communists before to hide the truth of a decrepit system from their own people – the American Wall is designed by those who want to hide the truth that there is nothing to fear.
We are similar enough on both sides of that wall, and the American system of rights and laws is powerful enough, that we can harness our few differences to unleash the magnificent potential of renewal and different outlooks that our differences afford. Now it is up to us to see beyond the slats to the clear and unhindered future. And it is up to us to see the reality that we have far, far more to gain by seeing immigrants at the border as they are, rather than how someone would paint them to be. Logic and history tell us this is so, but don’t take my word for it. We all DO need to go and see. To make the specter palpable. To learn whether we can leave the wall without the spell of fear being broken.