Every man (is) his own Homer, blind, caught in the endless wonder … of the stories of our lives. – Vance Bourjaily

Until relatively recently, we in the United States took pride in calling ourselves a nation of immigrants. Our nation was founded by refugees from politically and religiously closed social structures in Europe. And those refugees were followed by wave upon wave of subsequent immigrants, from across the Atlantic, from across the Pacific and from the Spanish colonies to the south.

This intercontinental immigration was accompanied by equivalent waves of intracontinental movement – west by settlers pushing across the forests and plains of our continent, and north by the descendants of slaves seeking, in journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s phrase, “the warmth of other suns” in the industrial centers of New York, Chicago, California and other urban engines of economic opportunity.

This northern movement has been countered more recently by the southern movement of Northerners seeking opportunities in the growing Southern cities of Raleigh, Atlanta and Memphis, and the snowbirds seeking the seasonal suns of Florida and Arizona.

Indeed, even the most fundamentally human trait of growing up and leaving home to make one’s way in the world is a migration of sorts, one made all the more obvious by the inordinate attention paid to millennials forced by the Great Recession to delay this ritual and move back in with Mom and Dad.

Paying attention to this national story of migration is important because, whatever the reason behind all this movement, the fundamental quality of the immigrant is optimism. Whether pushed by the pain of an intolerable present or pulled by the dream of a better future, the immigrant is focused – indeed, is forced to be focused – on opportunity, on proving his or her mettle.


From Mark Twain’s Huck and Jim escaping downriver on a raft to Toni Morrison’s Violet and Joe Trace escaping north on a train to Harlem, our nation’s story is a continuous narrative of desperate characters forging their souls in the heat of opportunity.

In light of this history and the nation it has wrought, it is discouraging to see our policies and public discourse – state and national – exhibit an ever-greater anti-immigrant tilt. It is not any particular element of policy that I find objectionable. And there are, to be sure, many people laboring diligently to help ease the way for immigrants to enter our communities. It is, rather, the underlying attitude lurking behind these policies and what they reveal about our changing national character that give me pause.

Just as the act of immigration is optimistic, forward-looking and opportunity-seeking, so the act of stifling immigration is pessimistic, backward-looking and fearful.

In seeking to stop immigration, we are not merely abandoning our national history and the character it has forged, we are also becoming the people our forebears sought to escape – the privileged, the entitled, the few who “have” and believe that opportunity is a threat to that possession and therefore something to be quashed.

Fear is a terrible thing. It turns faith in the inexhaustibly positive possibilities of human diversity and ingenuity into the two-dimensional, win-or-lose, zero-sum game of limited resources and limited opportunities.

In the end, fear seeks not to continue our story, but to end it. In surrendering to fear, we become the people our ancestors paid such a price to escape, making our country not great but simply un-American.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be contacted at:


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