It’s common to refer to immigration as one of the things that has made the United States special.
That badly understates the case.
Immigration is the most important ingredient in the United States’ unparalleled success, because our best immigrants are our truly exceptional ingredient.
President Donald Trump’s inability to see this, and his attempts to limit legal immigration, are among the most misguided aspects of his presidency. Trump’s executive order limiting green cards and visas issued Monday, his border-wall jaunt Tuesday and his crackdowns on refugee and asylum applicants since his election all make the United States weaker, less dynamic and less kind.
The United States has arable land, powerful rivers and useful minerals and other resources, of course, but so do lots of other nations. What makes us special is a large and nourishing stream of many of the smartest, toughest, hardest-working and most ambitious citizens produced by other nations.
It takes special people to risk everything for the hope of a new land, and then succeed in that land. It is those millions of special people, coming year after year to sow and reap extraordinary lives, afire with pride and ambition, who make the United States special.
Immigrants to this nation are so exceptional that their accomplishments create legends about entire ethnic groups that are both scarily biased and jealously complimentary. “Why are Chinese and Indian people all so smart?” some people ask. “Why are Mexicans all so hardworking?” Or Haitians, or Nigerians, or the Vietnamese?
In past generations, these same backhanded compliments were attached to my Jewish forebears, and the Italians and the Greeks and émigrés from a dozen other nations.
But what’s special are not these nationalities and ethnicities themselves, because every nationality and ethnicity has its makers, fakers and takers. What’s often so special are the representatives of these nationalities who make it to our shores, and make it once they get here.
An American whose family has been here 10 or 20 generations might be brilliant or driven, but they seem no more likely to be those things than residents of other nations. A recent immigrant to America, though, or his or her offspring, is often the cream of the land they sprang from, and often love the country with an extraordinary depth.
There are exceptions, bad apples, as in any large groups. But in addition to being more socially mobile, immigrants to the United States are also less likely to commit crimes than people born here.
Trump says he’s cutting out new high-tech visa and green card applications to get Americans back to work during the pandemic. But immigrants seeking those visas, who also need food and clothing and shelter and health care, create more jobs than they take, and often have skills Americans lack.
Trump says he shut borders to keep coronavirus out, but we lead the world in infections.
And Trump says he wants to cut access for refugees and asylum-seekers because they’re dangerous. They are mostly just people fleeing hellscape homelands, as many prospective Americans have.
What Trump wants out of immigration in 2020, as in 2016, is a winning electoral issue based on his vision of a nation that is exceptional because it is white, native-born and Christian.
In truth, what makes America exceptional is that it is multi-hued, immigrant-driven and religiously diverse.
And it’s no coincidence that in the middle of the biggest immigration reductions in a century, the United States feels less loving, less dynamic, less unified and less exceptional than it has in recent memory.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.