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Credit: Catherine Liang

With the presidential election season gearing up, it is abundantly clear that immigration will continue to dominate the campaign trails. President Trump will continue to use immigration to stoke fears of criminals coming to the United States en masse, whereas Democrats will invoke America’s history as a nation of immigrants to tout the benefits of diversity.

This debate about immigration isn’t really about immigration, but about a rapidly changing America. It is about fears of a browning country, in which the United States will by 2045 shift into majority-minority status — when non-Hispanic whites will, for the first time, no longer make up the majority of the U.S. population.

This has led to brewing anxiety among many white Americans who fear that this will lead to the demise of America as they know it.

We need to remember the lessons of history lest we repeat the same mistakes. My fellow Quakers, ask yourself this: Are your American friends of Hispanic descent at Penn any less American than your non-Hispanic friends? I think we all know the answer to that. 

In my Race & Ethnic Politics class, we have been discussing attitudes towards immigration from a historical perspective to help us think critically about today’s immigration debates. In light of today’s political climate, these debates made me think further about the underlying causes that shape attitudes toward immigration.

In 2016, when this cultural anxiety reached new heights with the ascendance of Donald Trump’s candidacy, Asians made up a majority of new immigrants arriving in the United States. Yet the nasty rhetoric about immigrants tended to target Hispanics in general and Mexicans in particular. Even more shocking, Americans of Hispanic descent have seen an uptick in verbal and physical abuse against them with, among other things, calls for them to “return to Mexico.”

These attacks are based on the offensive misconception that Americans of Hispanic descent are somehow less American than its white majority. 

The rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy saw an unprecedented uptick in racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. This trend has remained ubiquitous in not just politics but in everyday life all across the nation. 

One depressing fact about this is that history is repeating itself — and we have clearly not learned our lesson from it.

In the 19th century, Americans feared that the great influx of mostly Catholic immigrants from Ireland would alter American society and identity for the worse. It didn’t. Similarly, the influx of Chinese immigrants prompted fears about “yellow peril” and whether they would alter American identity for the worse. It didn’t. These are but two examples of many. There has always been a scapegoat in American identity politics — one group that has been branded the “other” and declared a threat to America’s sense of self. 

Today, far too many Americans harbor similar fears about Hispanics. Americans of Hispanic descent are often believed to be poorly assimilated — an insinuation that they are less American than other citizens — which has gained increased attention in the past few weeks following Tom Brokaw’s comments

Somehow, proclaiming pride in your Irish, Italian, or Swedish heritage is seen as a positive mark on a nation of immigrants, while Americans who proclaim pride in their Latin heritage are often seen as insufficiently American.

The original mass influx of the Irish was met with bitter hostility out of fear that their dissimilarities from the majority of largely Protestant citizens would erode American identity. Today, America’s celebration of Irish culture and its impact on this country is a great part of its tradition. 

As the election season continues, we will continue hearing about how being “tough on immigration” is vital to protect America. Don’t forget what the proponents of such rhetoric really mean when they talk about immigration. 

Stand together in opposition to those who claim that our American friends of Hispanic descent are somehow insufficiently patriotic and do not belong here. 

The idea of America should not be tied to its people’s skin color, but to their belief in, and devotion to, the values that birthed this nation. 

MICHAEL A. KESHMIRI is a College senior from Stockholm, Sweden studying political science. His email address is mkesh@sas.upenn.edu.

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