On the popular TV drama “Downton Abbey,” the central character, Lord Grantham, turns to his dinner guests and smirks, “There always seems to be something of the Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics.”
Grantham is an Englishman, speaking in 1920, but xenophobia has always been a central tenet of American life as well. We cherish our heritage as a “nation of immigrants,” and yet we resent and reject each wave of newcomers: Catholics and Jews, Italians and Irish, Japanese and Chinese. Since 9/11, Muslims have topped our list of suspicious “Johnny Foreigners.” And since the Boston bombers were Muslims of Chechen origin, their vicious attack has spawned a cynical attempt to rekindle nativist anxieties and thwart immigration reform.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered a particularly egregious example of immigrant-bashing. He sent a letter to Senate leader Harry Reid bristling with dark warnings about newcomers who seethe with “malicious intent” and are poised “to commit future acts of terror.” His answer: Delay the reform bill now before the Senate. Which is tantamount to killing it.
Vigilance against terrorism is a profound national priority, but the sort of rhetoric employed by Paul and other opponents of immigration reform is inaccurate and irresponsible. In fact, the Senate bill would make us safer and stronger as a nation, not weaker. Backers of reform must push forward and face down the forces of fear.
Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was absolutely right when he warned those forces not to “exploit the Boston marathon bombing” and smear all immigrants with the terrorist label. “Let no one be so cruel as to try to use the heinous acts of the young men last week to derail the dreams and futures of millions of hard-working people,” he said.
The Senate bill would spend billions on enhanced border security — too much, in our view — but if that makes it possible for more lawmakers to back the measure, the price is worth it. Moreover, the bill would improve the system for monitoring visitors who come here on tourist or student visas and extend their stays illegally.
Speaker John Boehner sees the virtue of this innovation, urging the Senate to stay on course and pass a bill. “If we fix our immigration system,” he told Fox News, “it may actually help us understand who all is here, why they’re here, and what legal status they have.”
If the 11 million undocumented immigrants could obtain legal status, they’d become better citizens, integrated into the fabric of daily life. They would no longer be afraid of authorities who could arrest and deport them at any time. Everyone is better off when immigrants have incentives to aid the police, not hide from them.
National strength is not just about military power; it’s also about economic and spiritual power. Part of the advantage America has over Europe stems from the hard-working, tax-paying immigrants who help finance our social welfare system and invigorate our communities with their energy and enterprise.
Immigrants create businesses, from Korean grocery stores and Greek diners to global powerhouses like Intel and Google. And they perform services that are vital to our national well-being. If you took the foreign-born workers out of every hospital in America — the nurses and doctors, orderlies and technicians — most of the hospitals would collapse immediately.
The immigration issue is very different from gun control. Broader background checks failed in the Senate because they lacked true bipartisan backing; only four Republicans supported the measure. But a significant number of conservative Republicans are joining the immigration cause. As Rep. Paul Ryan, the party’s most recent vice presidential nominee, said this week: “If anything, what we see in Boston is that we have to fix and modernize our immigration systems for lots of reasons. National security reasons, economic security reasons.”
Republicans have political reasons as well, of course. The smart ones know that they are facing a demographic disaster if they keep alienating immigrant voters. But the dumb ones remain clueless.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas keeps saying that “Obama wants a political issue more than he wants a bill.” But the sure-fire way to give Obama that issue, and undermine the GOP, is to listen to Cruz & Co. and oppose reform. If the bill passes, Republicans share the credit; if it loses, they get all the blame.
Immigration reflects our essential history as a nation. True, that history has often been stained by disgraceful outbursts of ignorance. But in the end, we are all Johnny Foreigners.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.