In this political year, immigration has become a global concern. The combination of civil war and ideological revolt in the Middle East has created a massive migration of families from Syria and elsewhere to Europe and, to a lesser degree, North America. Meanwhile, in the U.S. presidential campaigns—which have been underway well before the first primary elections next year—candidates on both sides, but especially conservatives, have made illegal immigration a major campaign issue. One, Donald Trump, has promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and to round up and deport some 12 million immigrants. In a Republican “debate” on November 10, he cited Dwight Eisenhower’s deportation of a million immigrants in the 1950s. The next morning’s Washington Post noted that the number may have been closer to 250,000 and that Trump failed to note that many were left to die in the Mexican deserts.
In his 1966 book, America and Americans*, John Steinbeck noted that immigration has been an issue for the country since its earliest days. He noted that the first European immigrants “worked for it, fought for it, and died for it. They stole and cheated and double-crossed for it.” In the process, “every single man in our emerging country was out for himself against all others—for his safety, his profit, his future.” This became part of our culture, “yet in one or two, certainly not more than three generations, each ethnic group has clicked into place in the union without losing the pluribus.”
“From the first,” he wrote, “we have treated our minorities abominably, the way the old boys do the new kids in school. All that was required to release this mechanism of oppression and sadism was that the newcomers be meek, poor, weak in numbers, and unprotected.” He adds that this may be one reason why ethnic minorities blended into the American mainstream culture so quickly.
However, Steinbeck also notes that, as new ethnic groups settled in, something happened: “Despite the anger, the contempt, the jealousy, the self-imposed ghettos and segregation, something was loose in this land called America. Its people were Americans. The new generations wanted to be Americans more than they wanted to be Poles or Germans or Hungarians or Italians or British. They wanted this and they did it. America was not planned; it became.”
Steinbeck called this chapter E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one. He noted that, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, most Americans are easily recognized as Americans when they travel overseas. “Somewhere,” he wrote, “there is an American look. I don’t know what it is, and foreigners cannot describe it, but it is there.”
This season’s political gambit is to use illegal immigration as a rallying point for voters who feel they have lost power. It reminds me of how the Nazis used Jews to taunt Germans dispossessed by their country’s treatment after World War I. Given that we are on the brink of what may well be a global migration, fueled by civil strife, religious intolerance and, ultimately, climate change that will wipe out coastal communities, I would rather take my lesson from Steinbeck. “E Pluribus Unum,” he wrote, “is a fact.”
*Steinbeck, J. America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction. New York: Viking Penguin, 2002.