Our Nation's Hospitable Roots
From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.
Last week, I wrote about hospitality, the practice of welcoming the stranger into our personal lives to enrich them. This train of thought led to reflecting on our national conversation in relation to people seeking to work and live in this country, or lack thereof. The United States’ problematic immigration policy and lack of ability or motivation to reform it reflect a fearful and inhospitable stance toward those who are seeking help and belonging here.
Reflecting upon traditions of hospitality can help us create more inclusive, welcoming, and mutually beneficial immigration policies. As the world faces historically high levels of displacement, we must better prepare our borders to accommodate unexpected guests. People who have lost everything from violence and other catastrophes need safety and help regaining the capacity to direct their own lives. In addition, the United States has always relied upon workers from different countries.
Because we cannot develop a coherent process to allow them to enter legally, at least on a temporary basis, we miss the opportunity to benefit from one of our greatest strengths as a nation. Offering hospitality and maintaining boundaries are not inherently in conflict; this is true for both individuals and nations.
The words of poet Emma Lazarus in her sonnet The New Colossus, inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, are a call to welcome those who seek refuge on our shores. This sort of welcome is an important part of our history, one that rejects the kind of nationalism that promotes fear and violence toward those who are different from us.
What prevents us from having more permeable boundaries that enable easier access for people to legally enter, while having open and intelligent conversations around the limits of hospitality? The primary impediment is our inability to hold tension and have dialogue that makes room for differences. The media often presents immigration and refugees as a crisis, with virtually no attention paid to possible policy alternatives that address the crisis while also strengthening us as a country. The conversations that could lead to real solutions remain uninitiated, and the positions getting public airtime are extreme or unhelpful: ugly, xenophobic views, a call for borders as boundaries to be entirely abolished, and in between nonspecific calls for reform.
Sonia Shah’s book The Next Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move explores how migration has always been the norm and how it is even encoded in our bodies. The book disputes inaccurate yet persistently held biases about people who migrate. She writes, “For centuries, we’ve suppressed the fact of the migration instinct, demonizing it as a harbinger of terror. We’ve constructed a story about our past, our bodies, and the natural world in which migration is the anomaly. It’s an illusion. And once it falls, the entire world shifts.”
Shah’s research presents clear evidence that human mobility has always been commonplace; for example, people crossed oceans by canoe long before Western civilization had modern maritime vessels.
Shah’s central message is that we can reclaim the truth of our collective history of welcoming migration and shift the current crisis into creative solutions. But she warns that if the inevitable migration due to climate change unfolds as a narrative of catastrophic disaster, we will be ill-prepared and miss an opportunity to meet the future from a position of compassionate strength.
Hospitable immigration policies for workers and refugees are smart and advantageous for everyone already living in the United States. Importantly, whatever our differences on how permeable the borders should be and how to direct policy on immigration, nothing must prevent us from adopting a more hospitable stance toward everyone who seeks refuge, work, or a new life here.
How do we begin to talk about something as complex as immigration in our personal communities when we are lacking healthy models for it nationally? We don’t have to be experts on the topic in order to have meaningful conversations about it, and we can learn more together. Not only is it possible to have open dialogues around potentially charged topics; it is necessary. But it is nearly impossible to navigate these conversations when the focus is exclusively on our differences or, conversely, when we avoid our differences in order to keep the peace.
It is in our communities where we can make room for expressing our differences without falling into a false equivalency trap, the place where the national dialogue is stuck. For example, the false equivalency trap for those who want unlimited asylum (or closed borders) might be expressed as something like: “If you are compassionate (or want a safe country), then you will think about immigration exactly as I do.” Refusing to buy into this trap means that dialogue starts with the recognition that we are respectful and open toward all wishing to migrate here, while allowing for real differences in what healthy, permeable boundaries look like.
As important as practicing the skills to have conversations around our differences is showing curiosity about people who live near us with their own more recent immigrant stories to share. Within our personal communities, we could research the different immigrant communities living near us and find activities that introduce us to their cultures. Or, we might create an activity around a shared experience, like planning a collective meal featuring recipes from the countries of recently immigrated neighbors.
Let’s share positive stories of the contributions of immigrants and refugees living near us. Many of us have our own similar immigrant origin stories, ones where our ancestors worked hard and survived on little in order to give their children and future generations opportunity. People who come to this country are often leaving behind difficult circumstances, but they bring with them cultures and traditions that can enhance our own. When we practice hospitality by welcoming those in need as guests, we make friends and strengthen the fabric of our own communities.