As I rode through the classic “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney’s Magic Kingdom last weekend several thoughts intruded upon my overworked brain. As I tried to enjoy quality time with my wife, kids and extended family I could not completely omit the news and images of travelers and refugees being banned from entering the United States. The recent decree seemed at odds with the simplistic boat ride I was taking through countries near and far.
“It’s a Small World” advocates for globalization — a shared planet with people of different views, values and beliefs coexisting. It’s a ride about respect for other cultures and peoples, who look, act and sound differently than we do. It’s idealistic, no doubt about it. But isn’t that what the American experiment has always been — idealistic? A place for the tired and poor of other nations to seek freedom and prosperity within our borders? A place for the downtrodden who yearn to make their own way to be given sanctuary? A place where the persecuted in other lands can dream of finding security and opportunity, free from judgment and intolerance? A place that opens its arms to those in need?
The issue of immigration, and illegal immigration, is fraught with concerns over the safety of our people, job security and, to a degree, racism. There has always been an us vs. them mentality when it comes to new arrivals to this country. Think about the Little Italy’s and other communities that sprang up around the country. Why did that happen? Because immigrants felt safer and more comfortable living near those who spoke, looked and celebrated the same culture they did. There was likely antagonism and hatred waiting if they tried to assimilate too quickly.
Today, we rightfully obsess over the vetting of who’s entering the country legally and illegally. We need to know who’s coming here and for what reasons. For our peace of mind, we deserve that. And this is a multi-layered issue. There’s legal immigration, illegal immigration, refugees seeking asylum, among other elements. There are people who come on visas to work or study and don’t leave. There’s national security and job creation. There are social welfare benefits, education costs and crime concerns. All of those issues are valid and all of those issues should be discussed and deliberated in a forum that takes the security and monetary costs into account as well as the human costs.
As the phrase often goes, the majority of people in this country are the children, grandchildren or direct descendants of immigrants. My great-grandparents came here from Europe 100 years ago and they came legally. I don’t doubt for a moment, however, that if that entry were blocked, they wouldn’t have tried to find another way in. America was the country with streets paved with gold, where you could rise from the lower class and become something. It was the place with promise.
We’ve come a long way since that time in terms of shrinking the world. Our borders have fallen in many ways due to global trade, ease of travel, increased programs that allow people to experience education abroad and many other reasons. The question is — do we consider those things progress? Are they good things? And do they bring value to our country? Is it worth it to save the lives of people fleeing death or welcome in bright minds from other countries to our universities and jobs for the risk of allowing in some people who might do harm? That’s a real question that we need to answer.
None of us can be blind to the problems any longer. This issue is now front and center for each of us to weigh and decide where we stand. It not only determines who we are as Americans today but also what the future of our country will look like tomorrow. It will affect our children and our children’s children as much as anyone.
I don’t think that an amusement park ride holds much sway in the real world. That’s fantasy. That’s a goal. It’s not reality. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t strive for understanding and acceptance across our boundaries with people unlike us. Can we be a beacon of hope and light to nations who see America as a shining city on a hill? Can we prove that it truly is a small world, where our commonality as human beings trumps our differences in terms of religion, culture and appearance? As communities and as a country, we need an answer.