“The principal thing in this world is to keep one’s soul aloft.” — Gustave Flaubert
It is difficult to keep one’s soul aloft when fleeing persecution, or starving, or being separated from your children. As is often the case in the immigration crisis impacting the United States.
Huge strides have been made in our society in the last few decades toward understanding others’ perspectives, having compassion for different lifestyles and life experiences. Empathy is at the root of the gay rights movement, the #me-too movement, the rise of racial discrimination awareness. There is empathy, too, in the increasing understanding of climate change, how one part of our planet impacts another, a feeling we are all in this together. Not so with immigration.
Ancestry DNA, 23 and Me and other genetic testing services show we share a gene pool with Africans, Eastern Europeans, Slavic populations, etc. But this, too, has not led to empathy with other countries or cultures. Social media hammers at our privacy, but it also connects us to a degree only imaginable even a generation ago. We teleconference with businesses in China, news organizations broadcast wars and riots in real time. Yet, “they” are in their countries, “we” in our own. We travel more, see other countries, experience other cultures. But when we return home, we hunker down.
All these components of our lives, in theory, make ours a small world. Yet, these forays into others’ lives and others’ times has not had an impact on our collective psyche. How is it the very things showing us our common heritage and common goals are dividing us more?
All human beings are immigrants; immigration is the story of human progression. The very condition of being human deems it so: People move to the places with resources.
Universally, the constant of history is change. This year, the United Nations estimates more than a billion people are “voting with their feet,” migrating within countries or across international borders. (National Geographic, August 2019)
Immigration is how the United States became a country. Diversity is how we became a great country. This year almost a million people will come into the United States legally. And many more will come illegally.
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But, a drawbridge mentality pervades in the U.S., especially among the well-established and prosperous. Our current president’s wife, born in Slovenia, came into the U.S. on the EB-1 visa, nicknamed the Einstein visa, as one must be highly acclaimed in their field to obtain it. (Washington Post, March 2, 2018) Apparently a good showing in a string bikini and kissing a 6-foot inflatable whale qualifies. (Sports Illustrated, swimsuit issue, 2000) Melania Trump’s parents followed through “chain migration,” a method much maligned by her husband, which “should be illegal.” (Newsweek, Jan. 14, 2019) Good for our first lady and good for her parents. But what about those who aren’t dating Donald Trump?
It is not OK to flaunt the laws of the United States. But it is also not OK how we as a country handle immigrants, legal and illegal. We need laws, not walls, and fair and equitable laws.
Empathy has been called “the ability that makes us truly human.” (Psychology Today, 2012) It is arguably the most important trait an individual can possess, and is critical to one’s happiness and success.
“Haven’t you ever had a dream?” the heroine in the animated Disney movie, “Tangled,” asks a group of menacing thugs. “Find your humanity!”
What would you not do to feed your child? What would you not attempt if staying where you lived was certain death? Or when the corruption in your own country was so bad you were afraid for your family?
We need empathy to revamp our immigration laws; we need an organized and humane process to admit people to the United States in a fair and reasonable way. And yes, we need to stop illegal immigration. But shouldn’t our behavior and our laws start with compassion, with empathy?
We want to be the democracy our forefathers dreamed of, the country generations of our ancestors defended. We are fortunate to live in the United States. And to the world, we are still that shining city on a hill.