WASHINGTON, Sept. 1, 2015 — Donald Trump and immigration are taking over my Facebook feed. A picture showed up on my wall today, a portrait of a lovely young Plains Indian woman and her horse. She was dressed in beautifully beaded clothing, the horse outfitted in equally beautiful, beaded tack.
The picture made me smile, until I noticed that it came with a message about immigration.
As any pedant will tell you, even American Indians are descended from immigrants. Their ancestors came here from Asia, probably crossing the land bridge that once stretched across the Bering Strait. When they arrived, they hunted the local mega-fauna, including giant ground sloths and native horses, to extinction.
The Indian and her horse present a lovely paradox. Before the Europeans came, what we think of as Plains Indian culture did not exist. There were no horses, no beaded moccasins, no heart-pounding buffalo hunts with young men galloping after the herds across the plains. Glass beads and horses were brought to the Americas by European immigrants; before an expanding America destroyed the Plains Indians culture, it helped create it.
Pueblo Indian culture was likewise enriched by European immigrants. Indian blanket weaving and silversmithing were developed from technology introduced by Europeans, their development guided by white tastes as much as by Indian aesthetics.
Immigration both enriches and endangers existing cultures. Like civilization itself, immigration both creates and destroys. Those who value the past will dread immigration; those who look forward to an uncertain future will embrace it.
Like civilization, immigration is a paradox, both a blessing and a curse. When humanity embraced civilization, it embraced art and architecture, literature and music. It accepted the gifts of life of the mind, the opportunity for leisure, the chance to raise our eyes from the dirt to look and reach for the stars.
At the same time, it embraced oppression and tyranny, avarice and war. When we became civilized, we became a tremendous force for good, but we also grasped the power to do greater evil than we’d ever been capable of when our energies were consumed by simple survival As we grew wealthier, we could be more ourselves, for good and ill, with the time, resources and power to do more than just chase after our daily bread.
Those who fear immigration are neither foolish nor ignorant because of it; immigration will change our culture in ways we can’t begin to predict, but we can predict that some of those changes will be for the worse. Those who embrace immigration are also neither foolish nor ignorant; waves of immigration have left vibrant new cultures rooted in the ruins of the cultures they’ve destroyed.
There are no right and wrong answers on immigration, but there are legal and illegal ways for it to occur. If we want to change those, we can change the law. The question of immigration forces us to ask what kind of society we wish to be. There are many ways to answer that question, some better than others, and not all the good answers are compatible with the others.
If we are wise and generous to each other, America will remain great regardless of its ethnic and racial composition and the lands our parents and grandparents called “home.” Fear — fear of immigrants, fear of the future, and fear of change — is conducive neither to wisdom or generosity. Whether we choose to put more stringent limits on immigration or throw open the gates, whether we deport those who enter illegally or reward them with citizenship, it is time to ratchet down the passion and ask calmly, what kind of country do we wish to be?
With any luck, we’ll remain a dynamic, free society that draws people from around the world. With any luck, we’ll someday be the country of our ideals, not the country of our fears.