Yesterday, the Expedition members spent the first fifteen minutes of class listening to Barack Obama’s speech on immigration. The purpose of this speech was to deliver the presidential decree which will lift the threat of deportation for immigrants who have been in the US for over 5 years. They live their lives in “the shadows” –a euphemism if you imagine what daily life must be like for the millions of non-citizens who cannot work, cannot be seen, fear the police constantly, barely manage to survive. The decree is opposed and denounced as undemocratic by some. Immigration has been controversial, of course, and many have gotten used to a system which raises borders and military detention centres–and then when all else fails, simply leaves the unwanted to their own devices. Many fear the uncontrolled influx of immigrants and call for the government to “stem the tide” or “dam the flood”. Instead, president Obama, like the equally amazing pope–who today warned the European parliamentarians in Strasbourg of the fact that the Mediterrean should not be allowed to become a sea graveyard–reminds us of the moral issue at stake. Immigration is the founding principle of the United States of America. “We were all strangers once” is the biblical quote deliberately used by Obama. The speech far outweighs the drawbacks of the decree. With it, Obama reminds us that hospitality used to be about welcoming diversity. At the same time it advocates the concept that guests should not outstay their welcome. That they should contribute, respect the law and the moral precepts of the host, if they want to stay as citizens.
I wonder what will happen next. It sounds so much like the original Obama. “Yes we can”: Americans can be as good as they like to see themselves. So can they?
Of course, the tensions around immigration are not new. On the one hand, we’ve always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants — a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts. Indeed, it is this constant flow of immigrants that helped to make America what it is. The scientific breakthroughs of Albert Einstein, the inventions of Nikola Tesla, the great ventures of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel and Sergey Brin’s Google, Inc. -– all this was possible because of immigrants.
And then there are the countless names and the quiet acts that never made the history books but were no less consequential in building this country — the generations who braved hardship and great risk to reach our shores in search of a better life for themselves and their families; the millions of people, ancestors to most of us, who believed that there was a place where they could be, at long last, free to work and worship and live their lives in peace.
So this steady stream of hardworking and talented people has made America the engine of the global economy and a beacon of hope around the world. And it’s allowed us to adapt and thrive in the face of technological and societal change. To this day, America reaps incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for the best and brightest from across the globe. Folks travel here in the hopes of being a part of a culture of entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and by doing so they strengthen and enrich that culture. Immigration also means we have a younger workforce -– and a faster-growing economy — than many of our competitors. And in an increasingly interconnected world, the diversity of our country is a powerful advantage in global competition.