Racism and Immigration


DACA, immigration reform, the Wall, illegal immigrants, chain migration, crime, safety.  These words have been thrown around a lot lately.  I’ve been sifting through articles and commentary, but a theme that comes up over and over again is the connection between immigration policy and racism.

Racism is an uncomfortable subject.  I hope we generally feel like America is getting better, but for some, we’re still far from the finish line.  In politics we see racism casting shadows that some of us might not be aware of.  As I’ve been try to understand immigration policy and all that’s been going on lately, I feel like the details distract from the heart of the issue. I still want to talk about all the details, but not without giving a little context as to why this issue has become so difficult to solve.

Personally, I’ve always identified as a white American female.  There’s nothing particularly special about me.  I make it through lines and past checkpoints with little to no trouble.  Okay, I get stopped a lot at airports, but only because of baby food jars and bottles of milk.  That doesn’t count.

Racism has been a blurred idea for me to really understand, because I’m not on the negative end of the issue.  I can go about my daily activities or plan trips without worrying about it.  That says a lot.  It’s often difficult to understand issues that don’t affect us personally.

My journey of moving beyond my own natural “racism” or racial biases has been eye-opening, revealing some of my own misconceptions.  I’m guilty of making assumptions about other people based solely on their appearance as I know others do the same to me.  I’ll probably still make loads of mistakes, but my greatest hope is that I’m getting better at opening my mind and challenging my assumptions.

I remember as a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania awkwardly trying to plan a cultural exchange with local students and thinking, “What is American culture?”  I thought about modern American pop culture.  I thought about the diversity of my high school friends. Hollywood?  McDonald’s?  I finally gave up and settled for cowboy boots, bandannas, and square dancing.   Sadly, that under-represents the cultural diversity of America.

We’re natives, we’re settlers, we’re refugees, we’re pioneers, we’re slaves.

America is a melting pot of racial, cultural, religious, and ideological diversity.  We’ve struggled in the past to live in harmony with each other to the point of war and persecution.  Some of those wounds are still healing.  Some still struggle to feel comfortable being different.

What makes immigration policies tied so firmly to race?

Immigration policies, and especially enforcement, revolves around a flawed idea of being able to accurately identify an “American”.  Like an uncertain Peace Corps volunteer, our first and easiest definition for an “American” might be something like the bandanna and cowboy boots.  And the worst part is if we stop there, we’ve suddenly made the immigration issue extremely racist — and not fully American.

Americans are Black.  Americans are Brown.  Americans are Tan.  Americans are Asian.  And we don’t all wear cowboy boots.  At a glance, you likely cannot accurately identify an “American”.

Every time we tighten up border security, native born Americans get stopped and questioned because they are being judged, at a glance, by their outward appearance.  Whether they are driving down the highway, getting on a bus, boarding a plane, someone has been trained to look for illegal immigrants based on a “profile”.  Racial profiling is a reality so many of our fellow Americans face – every day.

So before getting into the immigration debate, let’s keep in mind just how diverse we are, and how fear and the idea of security might affect other Americans.

And guess what?  I recently learned I’m not just “white”.  I’m Native American, a little African, a sprinkle of Jewish, a pinch of East Asian, and an interesting mix of Spanish, Italian, English, Irish, Balkan, French, German, Scandinavian, and Polish.

I’m American.


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