This week, the USCIS changed their mission statement, removing the phrase "Nation of Immigrants," causing many to question what is the true role immigrants have played in American society throughout history.
The term "A Nation of Immigrants" came to life in the 1950's during the Civil Rights Movement. The idea surged as a way to advance the notion that the US is a land of opportunity, founded and built by immigrants. This was meant to raise awareness of the morally inappropriate immigration system of the day, which banned groups from entering the US based solely on their race.
The storyline that was created by activists was later cemented by John F Kennedy, the famous Senator then President who himself was a descendent of Irish Immigrants from the 1840's. Kennedy pushed to remove national origin quotas during his time as both Senator and President - quota systems which had been enacted in the 1920's and drove immigration policy into the mid-1960's.
Kennedy himself never saw immigration reform come to light during his lifetime; however his sentiments were immortalized in a book he wrote around 1958 that was published after his death. The book, A Nation of Immigrants, asserted that with the possible exception of Native Americans, “every American who ever lived with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.”
Without going into the obvious flaw that African slaves might be better described as victims of human trafficking rather than immigrants, Kennedy's argument rang true for pro-immigration activists during the period - and continues to do so until this day.
This is why disagreement spawned when the USCIS changed its mission statement to remove the phrase "a Nation of Immigrants." .
As León Rodríguez, former director of USCIS (2014 to 2017) wrote in a letter to the Washington Post, "The new mission statement is a faithful articulation of the Trump administration’s policies grounded in the view that immigrants, with a few carefully defined exceptions, are a threat and burden to the United States, rather than the very essence of what has made our country a beacon and an example to the rest of the world."
Rodríguez went on to state his disagreement with the change of terms - as well as to assert that a simple change in wording doesn't change the reality of our country's founding.
"Regardless of the Trump administration’s rhetoric, we are, always have been and, I am optimistic enough to say even in these times, always will be a “nation of immigrants.”
Immigration law in America has shown a xenophobic lean throughout its history, but the truth that much of the American country and culture has been built on the backs of immigrants is a hard one to ignore.
Since Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric began, stories have popped up highlighting some of the country's most prominent immigrants. Founders and co-founders of some of the biggest tech giants, including WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Inc., Tesla and SpaceX are all immigrants.
Famous immigrants have also shaped United States culture and policy through history. Czech-born Madeline Albright, the first woman Secretary of State, has spoken openly about her struggles as an immigrant-girl growing up in America, just wanting to fit in.
Albert Einstein, the renowned physicist, was German-born, and fled to the US after being targeted by the Nazis. Although he did not claim asylum as his reason of entry, he very well could have been an asylum immigrant.
Even one of the most patriotic songs of all time - "God Bless America" - was written by immigrant Irving Berlin, who grew up in a dirt-floor hut in the Russian countryside.
In the ranks of remarkable immigrants you'll also find Joseph Pulitzer, the famous journalist, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, Levi Strauss, the creator of "American" blue jeans and John Muir, the Scotsman who helped to establish Yosemite National Park.
Many of these immigrants came from humble situations and saw emigrating to America as a way to better their lives. If their entry to the US was based on Trump's proposed immigration laws, many of them would never have made it into the country. And all have contributed to the building of this nation in the past, in the present and for the future.
When asked about the new mission statement, current USCIS director L. Francis Cissna highlighted, amongst other things, the removal also of the word “customers” from the new mission statement.
“Use of the term leads to the erroneous belief that applicants and petitioners, rather than the American people, are whom we ultimately serve.”
“All applicants and petitioners should, of course, always be treated with the greatest respect and courtesy, but we can’t forget that we serve the American people,” the director continued.
What might be left out, however, is that many of the people who the USCIS is serving once passed through the office themselves as petitioners or applicants. Perhaps it was their parents or grandparents, but as Kennedy pointed out, precious few people are exempt from the story of US immigration,which makes it quite contradictory that the sons and daughters of immigrants are attempting to enact anti-immigration policy.
While said story may not always be a beautiful one, immigrants have been an essential part of US history and society since its founding. In the eyes of many, that will continue to be true, regardless of what a mission statement says. Immigration has shaped our past, and continues to shape our present and future, which is why it is important to support the cause of immigrants during this difficult time. The US is, and always has been, A Nation of Immigrants.
If you have any questions about your immigration status or that of a family member or friend, please feel free to contact us and we can help you understand your unique options.