The week we celebrate our nation’s independence.
The holiday, often marked with backyard barbeques and fireworks, is an opportunity to tell our story as a country. In Boston, where I live, we do this through rituals, including a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, costumed tour guides making their way down the freedom trail, and, of course, lots of red, white, and blue t-shirts, hats, and sunglasses.
The last time I went to a public reading, led by a state official with a thick Boston accent, one grievance addressed to the British Crown stood out. The Colonists were furious that the King was restricting immigration to North America. They wrote, “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Indeed, the Colonists wanted and needed migrants. Eight of the men who signed the Declaration were immigrants. Seven of the signers of the Constitution were immigrants as well.
The United States has been shaped by migration since our founding. In 1963, President Kennedy proclaimed that the United States was a nation of immigrants. He almost got it right. But it would be more accurate if he removed two letters, the first “i” and “m.”
We are a nation of migrants.
Overlapping and unequal migration experiences have shaped us as individuals, community members, and as a nation. Colonial migrations, slavery, forced migration of Native communities, internal migrations, and immigration from around the globe have all had an impact. To understand who we are as a people, we must recognize today’s newcomers as participating in an experience that is fundamental to our history and identity.
At the same time, the fierceness of today’s awful anti-immigrant xenophobia should be recognized not as an exception, but as continuity of the battles over American identity that have been part of the history of North America since European settlers claimed the land for themselves. For example, while Benjamin Franklin famously complained German immigrants could not integrate, George Washington once toasted, “May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth!”
I am not the first to note that even the rhetoric of today’s anti-immigrant hate is borrowed. The slogan “America First” was core to the messaging of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s when they turned their attention to Jewish and Catholic immigrants. Even anti-immigrant tropes are recycled. We hear that immigrants are criminals and can’t – or don’t – want to learn English, that they are a drain on our economy and tax dollars. That none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter when scholars debunk the false narratives that swirl around.
Nobody wins when bigotry distorts the truth. At Re-Imagining Migration, we focus on the impacts on young people, and by extension, our shared future. Immigrant-origin young people take in these messages, shaping how they see themselves and their opportunities for success. Non-immigrants take in the bigotry as well.
27% percent of young people in American classrooms are immigrants and the children of immigrants. Demographers reinforce how important these young people are to the next generation and those to follow. They are the fastest-growing segment of the school-aged population and one of the only growing sectors of the U.S. population. Research shows they are generally liked by their teachers. But, those same feelings of warmth are not necessarily extended to their parents, nor shared by other school faculty who are sometimes the perpetrators of anti-immigrant bullying in schools.
Studies underscore that immigrant-origin youth enter school full of enthusiasm, hope, and a desire to learn English and fit it. Immigrant-origin students are 250% more likely to view their schools positively than white U.S.-born students – perhaps the result of those children understanding how their parents sacrificed their own opportunities in order to give them a better life.
My colleagues and two of the co-founders of Re-Imagining Migration, Carola Suárez-Orozco, and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, suggest that all too often the experience of schooling in the U.S. does not meet the expectations of young people or their families. They explain, “Immigrant children and their families arrive eager to face any challenge, but too seldom have the resources and skills to achieve academic success on their own.” Indeed, the schools immigrant-origin youth attend are often overwhelmed, and in some communities, they find themselves serving immigrants for the first time.
What happens next is a tragedy.
On the whole, motivation, engagement, and grades typically decline the longer immigrant-origin kids are in school. Immigrant students’ positive attitudes are undermined by social hostility, divisive rhetoric, hate, and anti-immigrant bigotry. While there are exceptions, they are often the results of extraordinary resilience, determination, and deep connections between students and school faculty.
In the U.S., 60% of school principals report “derogatory comments toward immigrants.” Researchers believe the actual number is higher. Reports during the pandemic suggest that Asian American students have been frequent targets of bigotry, but they are not alone. Attacks against Muslims and Jews are skyrocketing as well. A recent study of Massachusetts schools noted that 60% of Muslim students had been targets of bullying.
How do we explain what is going on and what we should be doing about it?
We might start by recognizing the role migration has played in our past and our present. The education of immigrant-origin students, and education about migration, needs to be understood as fundamental. Currently, educators rarely learn about working with immigrant students or their families as part of their education. This has to change.
Moreover, we need to rethink the story we teach about ourselves and how we teach it. Migration isn’t an exception; it is the throughline of our American story. It is how we came to be who we are as a people today.
Migration is in the music we will all be playing on the 4th – whether hip-hop originated by black immigrants in the Bronx or classical orchestras, whose music serves as a score for the fireworks that light up the night sky. It’s in the food, hot dogs adapted from German immigrants, and renamed in response to prejudice. Pizza, originally from Italian immigrants, has become a platform for multicultural culinary mixtures, and don’t forget the chips and salsa that I can’t stop eating.
Walt Whitman might have captured it best in the introduction to Leaves of Grass when he wrote that America “is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations.”
Let’s celebrate our nation of nations on the fourth of July, this, and every year.