Angles in America: How Immigrants can Save Our Union

Let me make a suggestion: If we want to keep American democracy strong, it is vital that we begin to accept, on a larger scale than hitherto contemplated, immigrants from around the world.

Beyond the humanitarian traditions of our immigrant country, the reasons for this have much more to do with the protections that immigrants offer us and our way of life. This understanding arises from the perception that unchallenged hegemony is one of the principle routes by which democracy is undermined by the tyranny of an established majority.

The balm of immigration, if I can use that term, is immediate but also long-term. Even as the newer population integrates into the established population--usually by the second generation--the echoes of the immigrant's original needs continue to sound, often with new clarity and articulation.

These needs--such as the need for housing, equal economic opportunity and equality, equal education and even the need for political commerce conducted in their own language, (allowing them to more easily participate in the electoral process), push back against the established majority, a majority which believes that its own version of the status quo is "the true democracy."

On the contrary, the majority's vision of what democracy is and isn't, is often a rigidified and idealized version that leaves out the struggles those self-same people went through earlier, either through their own immigrant forbearers or in the rise they made from the fringes of society to the centers of power, their own ascension within the mobile environment of our country.

Welcoming immigrants should, from this point of view, be seen as a kind of tonic that brings democracy back to its roots, roots which always involve the struggle to assimilate, change, enlarge frontiers both physical, philosophical and social.

Democracy works best when it is in constant evolution. Jefferson even went so far as to say that the storm of rebellion is an occasional political necessity. But we need not go that far. When fixated upon a specific vision or version of what democracy should look like--most often a vision whose sentinel is a ruling class comfortable with what it has achieved of the American dream, democracy begins to fail. Nativist dreams are in their essence, undemocratic.

Current political movements, such as ones that seek to reduce the ability to vote because of imagined abuses of the voting system, are based on a desire to maintain an undemocratic--but familiar face--on what a certain group maintains is democratic.

The immigration crisis we now face is greeted, for the most part, not with creative ideas of how this precious resource of immigrants can be accepted and integrated into U.S. society--much to the benefit of our vitality and strength to say nothing of the benefits to immigrants themselves--but with plans to build a walled fortress to keep us "safe" from the incursion of aliens. But without the pressure of immigration and its problems on entrenched constituencies who limit the very nature of democratic intercourse, democracy can stagnate and wither on the vine. The temporary power of the majority needs to be tempered by the lasting vitality of change.

The problem of majority rule--and majority resistance to change--was dealt with at the Constitutional Convention as the thirteen colonies struggled to either remain as sovereign states or unite under a strong federal government.

The compromise that arose and which was immortalized in the US Constitution, recognized not only the inherent risks in giving up power--as in the states ceding authority to a central government--but the benefits of banding together so that a different--and perhaps higher--level of self-interest could manifest, one where local politics was not the only driving force or the myopia of a single groups perspective a dam in the river of change.

Compromise is inherently courageous and democratic and by their very presence, immigrants, with their own demands for equal access to our civic life, are disruptors of the status quo. Our Founders understood that by joining together, all constituencies might prosper because more than any single groups ideas, the vitality of democracy was protected by the creative interaction between different groups. Anything else would bring stagnation.

When we welcome immigrants with carefully opened arms, doing enough but not doing too much, we are supporting our country in the best way possible. Revitalization is at our borders now and we should welcome it.