By Thornton Blount (8/29/16)
This election cycle, America has been grappling with a lot of core-shaking questions that redefine our national identity on many fronts. Some of these include questions about our values and how we weigh them against one another, about our temperament and national mood, and of course, about where we stand in the international community. One of the most prominent debates in the realm of national discussion at the moment is about American citizenship, what it looks like, and how it informs American culture.
Donald Trump’s campaign, despite its sporadic and unpredictable nature, has not shifted on two common themes throughout its duration: nativism and isolationism. Most of Trump’s rhetoric has revolved around these two themes, whether it be advocacy for focusing on our domestic economy and the well-being of Americans at home, or anti-immigration tactics such as banning Muslim immigrants and deporting all illegal aliens. Indeed, the mantra of his supporters, passionately chanted anytime Trump enters a room, is ‘Build That Wall’ – a pretty good summary of this election cycle.
On the opposite end, Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric has been centered around inclusion and diversity. Some of her common themes include women and families. Hence – although commentators and pundits have said this every election cycle since 1776 – Americans this year find themselves in another polarized battle over how we define ourselves as a citizenry and what national culture stems from that foundation; a conflict who’s resolution will undoubtedly become a defining moment in our nation’s history and determine the direction of our nation’s future.
For me, the America I’ve known has always been closer to Hillary Clinton’s vision. My great-grandparents on either side immigrated to the United States, and my closest friends and mentors growing up could claim allegiance to, or at least heritage from another country. While I’ve never had more than one nationality’s citizenship, I found myself as an outsider for most of my life as well. Having grown up abroad, the only thing American about me were the words on my passport. I knew nothing of our nation’s history, its present standing, how Americans interact, or what Americans even talked about. Returning to the United States permanently for the first time since age 6, I had not the faintest idea of what American life was like when my parents dropped me off at boarding school in Southborough, Massachusetts. My closest friends quickly became other outsiders: the son of Haitian immigrants, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and a dual-citizen herself, and a Bahamian national who was here on a study visa. Furthermore, my advisor at school, one of the most important mentors in my life, was Chilean.
Thus, having had a diverse childhood abroad, followed by a diverse group of friends and educators in high school, I was shocked by the rapid explosion of this kind of national debate. For me, the answer was always obvious: America is a melting pot, founded and developed, and continuously enriched and fueled by immigrants. Conservatives endlessly preach about remaining committed to traditional values, yet our most traditional value to date is immigration. The settlers at Plymouth and Jamestown were all illegal aliens, and it’s ridiculous to try to neglect that.
To be clear, this is not an absolute condemnation of Donald Trump’s (hazy) policy declarations, nor an argument for open borders. I agree that our immigration system needs to be dramatically reformed and that our borders need to be secured. Republicans like to believe that Democrats either aren’t aware of the negative consequences of our flawed immigration system or at least just ignore them, but that’s not true. Although I may not be as equally concerned about these consequences at the moment, I am fully aware of them and am also quite committed to alleviating them. My main disagreement with Donald Trump and his supporters, and indeed the topic of this article, is rather over the villianization of immigrants.
Immigrants are not only this nation’s backbone, but this nation’s facial features and demeanor. Our culture has always been just a meshing of innumerable others. While I can understand the argument for solidifying our national culture and having it go uninfluenced by any future influences, I disagree with it. Our nation is at its strongest when we have a continuous influx of new ideas and beliefs so that we can continue to have the richest and most well-informed culture in the world, not one that is stale and overcommitted to archaic values. Those who disagree with me may argue that America is no longer a ‘young nation’ and that it’s only natural that we form a permanent national identity. This viewpoint is so naive and ignorant of history. The true strength in the concept of ‘America’ is that we will forever be a ‘young nation’ that is constantly redefining and challenging itself.