As I reflect on the 14th memorial of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, I can’t help but wonder if we have lost sight of the real point. Certainly, every anniversary of these terrible terrorist attacks is a time to remember those who lost their lives or continue to have their lives changed in ways that we cannot imagine. I flew into New York City on the morning of September 11th, 2001, spent the day contemplating and praying about the meaning of such a tragedy, and then drove home with three other lost Seattleites on a 50+ hour cross-country road trip. While my loved ones were safe, I have never been the same since that trip. That day was a jumping off point – a signal that those that trade in the art of terrorism like Al Queda and now ISIS represent real evil that must be stopped. As I’ve argued in my blog post, United We Stand, while war is a horrible last option, there are times when it is necessary to protect our sense of humanity.
Others have taken a different lesson from 9/11 and the challenges of the 2008 economic meltdown. They have concluded that the United States is an exclusive club that we must protect by literally and figuratively putting up walls to keep others out. If you listen to the political noise in the ever-present
2016 presidential campaign, you would think that immigration issues are the most important challenges in our country, and we need to determine “how many people we can keep out or kick out.” Our nation has many serious problems, and while immigration reform is not at the top of my list, it is certainly important. So if we are going to have that debate, let’s make sure we engage it in a principled way.
Let’s begin the debate by recognizing an important fact. With the exception of Native Americans (who have been sadly disenfranchised and persecuted for hundreds of years), we are all immigrants to this country. My great-great grandfather emigrated from Luxembourg to Newton, Wisconsin around 1850 where he helped form St. Augustine, a local catholic church. At the time, he lived in a community of German descent, but he and his ancestors embraced this land and the American principles that came with it. My wife moved to the United States when she was 9 years old when her father was on an ex-pat assignment. Although she loves her native Netherlands deeply, she is an American immigrant and our children are a tiny microcosm of the cultural melting pot that is the United States.
Each of us has a similar story – some with longer histories than others, but the story is the same. It is a narrative that involves slavery, cultural clashes, economic unrest, and much civil strife. Each wave of
immigrants faces the challenge of retaining their cultural heritage, fighting through stereotypes and language barriers, all while embracing the fundamentals of the American ideal. All of this conflict and struggle enriches our culture, brings new talents and skills to our economy, and enables our country to remain vibrant and at the cutting edge of civic development. Ultimately this entire narrative is what makes America great.
In my new book, Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal, I talk at great length about the importance of having principles upon which we establish our civic rules and government policies. I present five principles for the immigration debate:
- Driving Comprehensive Reform: Our immigration policy is seriously flawed and needs to be re-worked from top to bottom in a comprehensive fashion. This means solving the shortage of H1 employment visas, addressing the permanent residents who are undocumented, and providing a better security framework for our borders.
- Dealing with the Source: Too often our approach to an immigration issue is to treat the symptoms only. Migrations from Central America and now from the Middle East are issues with systemic origins. Immigration is not just a domestic citizenship issue—it is a foreign policy issue as well.
- Capitalizing on the Opportunity: Immigrants have contributed dramatically to the strength and growth of our country for over 400 years. Immigration policy is not about exclusion—it must be about fostering the continued enrichment of American culture and skills, even if the process is flawed and involves some conflicts. It must also acknowledge and accept that a large number of undocumented residents have lived in the US for many years, already contributing productively to our social and economic fabric.
- Recognizing that Security Does Matter: The opportunity also has risks, and protecting the country is part of our government’s core purpose. We need to utilize all of our innovative and creative skills to design a policy that protects us from those that wish to do harm. This is not about walls and fences that are easily breached. This is about thoughtful measures that evaluate and qualify citizens in an appropriate way.
- Providing Humanitarian Aid: What is frequently lost in the current discussion about illegal immigrants is that they are often refugees first. They are seeking asylum from corrupt regimes, economic deserts, and violent wars in search of safety. We must fulfill our obligation to provide humanitarian support and protection with a real, sustained allocation of resources.
These principles are not about some hypothetical debate in a campaign speech. The tragedies we see every night in the news from Syria, Turkey, the Mediterranean, and now Europe remind us that this is an issue about people’s lives and our own humanity. The statistics are shocking:
4 million Syrians have fled their country (7 million more are homeless and “in the queue”), now housed in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey – none of which have the support systems for this to be a sustainable solution. As Shikha Dalmia argues in The Week, America’s response is in fact un-American – accepting roughly 1,500 Syrian refugees to date with a pledge to take up to 10,000 refugees a year. Western Europe is waking up to the problem as it arrives on its shores, but we must play a significantly larger role. How can Germany, a country with a smaller economy and a population less than a 1/3 of the United States accept so many more?
There are those that argue we can no longer provide for asylum or immigration in the post-9/11, post-2008 world. But speaking from an immigrant heart and an American mind, that is exactly the wrong response. We must not let the extremists and fear mongers in our midst blind us to the cultural opportunity and humanitarian imperative in front of us. Of course, anyone accepted into our country must be vetted in a serious way, but we are a nation of immigrants – let us act with the resolve that shows we remember that. #NeverForget has many meanings