The debate over a wall separating the United States and Mexico goes to the heart of American society. The wall itself is about preventing illegal immigration, but the debate inevitably flows to the question of immigration in general, as it always has in American history.
An Agonizing Experience
The American nation was forged from fragments of other nations. The English, Scotch-Irish, Swedish, Germans, Catholic Irish, Italians, Jews and Africans joined together, or, better yet, were crushed together, to create the American nation. It was a painful process. At any given point, Americans believed that the way America was then was the way it ought to be. Thus the settlers from England were appalled at the arrival of the Scotch-Irish, who were seen as unassimilable and irredeemable brawlers, drunkards and thugs. When the Irish Catholics arrived, many feared they could not assimilate to a predominantly Protestant society. Indeed, the debate over whether a Catholic could become president dominated the 1960 election, more than a century after the Irish influx began.
Virtually all immigrants who came to the United States were those being crushed in their own societies (except, of course, for Africans slaves, who were brought to the U.S. through no choice of their own). They left families, customs and all that was familiar for a new start. The Jamestown and Plymouth colonies were built on this process. It was the core American experience: suffering through being a stranger in a strange land while being distrusted and even loathed.
The nation-building process in the U.S. was an agonizing experience. Some have romanticized it, forgetting that the melting pot was hot enough to dissolve human souls, and that the pain fell both on the immigrants themselves and on those with whom they merged. Yet immigration was essential. The first European immigrants who arrived were too few to create a nation that could settle and exploit the continent, spark industrialization, and win wars. Had the U.S. remained simply an English nation, it would have been annihilated long ago. Immigrants were indispensable to the creation of a viable country, and, inevitably, most would come from “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” as Emma Lazarus put it. The United States welcomed immigrants out of necessity and even desperation, the same factors that drove immigrants to the U.S. in the first place.