Immigration is a contentious issue because it perturbs many people's self-image and sense of acceptance. "Do I belong here? Am I as American as you?" Few say it like that, yet those are the unspoken undercurrents fueling the fear and anger over the issue. Yet immigration also raises legitimate concerns about the allocation of limited social services (education, health care), taxes, unemployment, wage depression, crime, and the environment. How to address those issues without sounding like a racist hiding behind those issues?
Some politicians and pundits hide behind the mantra: "Legal immigration yes, illegal immigration no," a neat way of both supporting and opposing immigration, while avoiding the real question: "What should be legal?" How many do we admit, how quickly, using what standards, what consequences for those here illegally and what of their children? If legality were the real issue, we could solve the problem overnight by legalizing everyone.
I'm going to avoid those questions too, because I have no easy answers. (At least I am blatant about it.) Instead, I propose we focus on a proven solution to all our past immigration problems: Assimilation.
To say America is a nation of immigrants is like saying the sky is blue. It's both true and irrelevant. Every nation is a nation of immigrants; people have been migrating across the globe ever since we left Africa. Nor did the thirteen largely English colonies mean to establish a nation of immigrants. Many did not welcome America's first large Catholic influx in the 1840s, and Emma Lazarus's poem ("Give me your tired...") did not grace Lady Liberty until 1903.
More importantly, to say we are a nation of immigrants is an incomplete truth. A fuller truth is that we are a nation of immigrants who assimilated--who learned English, did not rely (through most of our history) on government safety nets, and sought to "become Americans" (a once-popular phrase).
Assimilation is not homogeneity. Marines and hippies, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Morrison, are equally American. Assimilation is not conformity to Norman Rockwell, but an erosion of tribal empathy for one's ethnicity and former homeland as one feels increasing attachment for the host culture and its people. Assimilation is the reciprocal price the immigrant pays for the benefit of acceptance. (Reciprocal, because contrary to the stereotype of discrimination always being a white or American thing, immigrants from all nations import their own share of prejudices.) Assimilation is thus the opposite of both rightist nativism and leftist identity politics; the former rejects the newcomer, the latter rejects the host.