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Promotin’ the General Welfare

For Whom Is America Really?

Since Donald Trump began his run for President, he signaled clearly that he was willing to target minorities of all kinds, immigrants from all parts of the world, and, in particular, sanctuary cities.  


Upon his inauguration, it was clear from his directives and his Attorney General’s intentions that certain folks would be singled out for special, unfavorable treatment, whether they came here with good intentions and notions of the American dream or desperately escaping nightmarish scenes of civil unrest. There are always those among us who do not live up to the highest standards of any society, but in the voice of our now-President, the broad brush his words painted over all folks from what he deemed as undesirable nations was purposely intended to poison the minds of Americans who might feel compassionately toward both refugees and other immigrants, legal and illegal alike.  


Forgetting for a second those predisposed to antipathy toward certain kinds of people, negative sentiments seeped into the daily discourse of political dialog, and enough people were persuaded to accept President Trump’s view of what may be called “acceptable” immigrants.  


Anyone who knows the history of Jeff Sessions knows a man all too eager to ban anyone who can’t speak English like an average, um, well, let’s see here… pick a regional dialect… I mean, Queen’s English is not necessarily our forte, but I’ll go with the notion of “average American” to keep things tidy, if not incomplete and unfair.


Of course, there’s also the eye test someone like Jeff Sessions promotes. If it looks like a non-Christian, and eats like a non-Christian, and smells like a non-Christian, well, why should we extend a helping hand? For that matter, if it looks non-white, well, that eye test must be applied as well, forget that many of these non-whites unfit for citizenship in the eyes of the Jeff Sessions of America already worked jobs and paid taxes despite being harassed or risking deportation.  


Now let’s be real: this is not the first time so-called Americans have turned against new groups of people seeking salvation in our corner of the wild blue yonder. Why, it’s likely the case that many so-called Americans probably descended from immigrants, themselves once the targets of discrimination. How is it possible to know that such poor treatment visited their forbears and not recognize those same failing traits in themselves?


But that is the beauty of “America”, in many ways: our short-term memory where it comes to history, our anxiety over what qualities define being an “American.”


We are not so old of a country. We are pretty young and still a nation learning, growing, and coming to terms with what this American Experiment can yield. Our most defining trait is our full-on embrace of capitalism, consumerism, and the right of every citizen to participate in the free market as best he or she can. Sure, there’s the other stuff, the business about democratic ideals declared so eloquently in our Declaration and Constitution, but every four years is good enough for the primer from Democracy for Dummies, and then we can go on our merry way of being the best buyers on the planet.    


Yet, why do we find ourselves returning to the well of our discontent so often when it comes to this question of what constitutes, or better yet, “who” constitutes an acceptable American?


We question a person’s patriotism when they express dissent. We challenge a person’s humanity when they choose a lifestyle unlike our own. We view a person’s creed with contempt when they do not believe as we do – all in the name of enforcing ideals we so gallantly defend and piously cherish. And yet, we act like being an “other” is so un-American – I daresay, it is that which makes us uniquely American.


Even our own President’s family made their way to the United States not having been born on American soil – but then, that is true of most of our families, now isn’t it? It is the story of virtually all folks whose families do not descend from the indigenous peoples of this continent.  


So why do we cling desperately to a divisive falsehood? Why do we excoriate those seeking sanctuary on our shores and in our cities and suggest that we exclude certain kinds of people and admit others?  


The language of President Trump, his Attorney General, and recently, the ideas codified in the RAISE legislation proposed by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue seek to overturn our nation’s good faith gestures with respect to immigrants by suggesting we are being overrun by “outsiders” who threaten to destroy, rather than enhance, the American fabric.


What makes this legislation so misleading in its intent is the notion that it is designed to help American workers.  


According to Robert Law’s opinion column on The Hill, “President Trump and the two senators released a revised version of the ‘Reforming American Immigration for Strong Economy’ (RAISE) Act, a commonsense bill that actually recognizes the American people as the primary stakeholders in our immigration system.”


That is one view. But, I question the assumptions made regarding “commonsense” and “American people.” By whose standards is this considered a piece of common sense legislation? And who are these “American people” Mr. Law, and others of his ilk, speak of?


America has been a sanctuary since its earliest invaders, so-called Pilgrims, sought refuge on foreign soil to practice a most intolerant form of Christianity. In other parts of this continent, other came not motivated by Christianity but that other firmly-held faith, Capitalism. All of them came to settle on the continent without prior arrangements, be it a contract with or permission from indigenous inhabitants.


It is from this flawed premise of what is “American” that all things thus flow. What’s more, we have proceeded most pleasantly to go about our business without so much as a truly charitable effort to make reparations or express sincere gratitude for being allowed to make this continent home.


That we now chastise municipalities so inclined to guarantee sanctuary to those now seeking assistance is inconsistent with the hospitality shown to early “American” pioneers, pillagers, plunderers, and pious alike. The least we could do is extend a welcoming hand to the latest who now come seeking solace on our shores. 


But, amnesia is clearly a virtue in our education; or, is it that we “misremember” the origins of this so-called proud nation?


Whether indentured by contract, forced by slavery, or simply adventurous in spirit, those past “Americans” were people who built this nation while rending it asunder from indigenous peoples and restricting access to their natural homelands. We fail to see both the injustice and inconsistency in our determinations now to exclude some groups while extending a cooperative hand to others. Our behaviors should be seen as offensive, but alas, it’s merely a part of doing business, and when it’s most convenient, we are more likely to bend rules when the results will rest in our favor.


I have lived the better part of a lifetime listening to people telling other people to “go back to” wherever they think “your people” came from, when in fact “your people” came from right around the corner. What’s worse, they’ve offended the ears of many with derisive speech intended to discourage descendants of native North Americans that I’ve long questioned their misunderstanding of the process that becoming “America” is all about.


My voice is hoarse and coarsened from appealing to logic, reason, history and whatnot. In this age of renewed efforts to rid ourselves of the “others”, I am inclined simply to retreat and retire to some other place. But surrendering is not an option my forbears would respect, and even if motivated only by their judgment, it is not possible for me, and others like myself in thought and heart, to give in to poorly-veiled attempts to appeal to the worst in human nature and that of the basest of Americans – the most un-American of ideas, rejecting people simply because they do not look, speak, pray, or live like we do.


No matter how hard the President, Attorney General, and sympathetic senators push to punish sanctuary cities and others who offer safe harbor and solid work, we cannot withdraw our support for those who seek a better life here in the United States. Regardless how hard-hearted and wrong-headed those who fear the “others” may be, we can let neither their shouts nor their murmurs win over our virtue and sense of decency as Americans. I and many others cannot comfortably call this country home and abide by such offenses to our humanity. We are better people than this, and if we aren’t, then we must work to regain that plateau.


Be it the language of the RAISE Act, the venom of our President, or the vigorous pursuit of an immoral policy by the Attorney General, we are less American if we allow ourselves to give in to these ill-formed ideas.  


And then what will the American Experiment have been about? All those lofty ideals and patriotic premises gone to pot? We cannot retreat now, not when we are maturing as a nation. Now is the time for a clearer, more complete understanding of what most makes an American and for whom America is intended: not excluding but embracing, not closing off but welcoming in.


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The text above is a column and expresses only the opinion of the author, not NOLA Defender or NOLA Defender’s Editorial Board.

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