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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Immigration – Our Country’s Defining Asset

As a descendant of immigrants who came to this country in the 18th and 19th centuries, I’ve long been puzzled by the resistance that’s building in so many quarters of our society to immigration.

While I appreciate the wide disparity of opinions on this subject, I was captivated by the op ed that appeared recently in the Washington Post by President George W. Bush. His comments were made in conjunction with the upcoming release of his book of paintings featuring remarkable stories of immigrants that he has had the opportunity to get to know over the years.

The aspect of the opinion piece that impressed me the most was what I thought to be the down to earth, reasonable approach he takes to the subject.

If you missed the article, I’ve reprinted it here, along with a review of his upcoming book of paintings. Enjoy!

Immigration – Our Country’s Defining Asset

Originally published in the Washington Post on April 16, 2021

Next week, I’m proud to publish a new collection of my paintings, entitled “Out of Many, One.” The book may not set the art world stirring — hopefully, the critics won’t call it “One Too Many.”

I set out to accomplish two things: to share some portraits of immigrants, each with a remarkable story I try to tell, and to humanize the debate on immigration and reform.

I hope that these faces, and the stories that accompany them, serve as a reminder that immigration isn’t just a part of our heritage. New Americans are just as much a force for good now, with their energy, idealism and love of country, as they have always been.

I write about a champion runner who barely survived ethnic violence in East Africa, and who told me, “America has given me everything I dreamed of as a boy.” I share the story of a young man from France who followed his dream to become an American soldier and went on to earn the Medal of Honor. And readers may recognize two distinguished citizens who fled prewar Europe as children, and who each became a U.S. Secretary of State.

The backgrounds are varied, but readers won’t have to search hard for a common theme. It’s gratitude. So many immigrants are filled with appreciation, a spirit nicely summed up by a Cuban American friend who said: “If I live for a hundred years, I could never repay what this country has done for me.”

The help and respect historically accorded to new arrivals is one reason so many people still aspire and wait to become Americans. So how is it that in a country more generous to new arrivals than any other, immigration policy is the source of so much rancor and ill will? The short answer is that the issue has been exploited in ways that do little credit to either party. And no proposal on immigration will have credibility without confidence that our laws are carried out consistently and in good faith.

“Out of Many, One” is not a brief for any specific set of policies, which I leave to the political leaders of today. However, the book — along with the George W. Bush Presidential Center — does set forth principles for reform that can restore the people’s confidence in an immigration system that serves both our values and our interests.

One place to start is DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Americans who favor a path to citizenship for those brought here as children, known as "dreamers," are not advocating open borders. They just recognize that young men and women who grew up in the United States, and who never knew any other place as home, are fundamentally American. And they ought not be punished for choices made by their parents.

Another opportunity for agreement is the border. I have long said that we can be both a lawful and a welcoming nation at the same time. We need a secure and efficient border, and we should apply all the necessary resources — manpower, physical barriers, advanced technology, streamlined and efficient ports of entry, and a robust legal immigration system — to assure it.

Effective border management starts well beyond the border, so we must work with our neighbors to help them build freedom and opportunity so their citizens can thrive at home. We cannot rely on enforcement alone to prevent the untenable and so often heartbreaking scenes that come with large-scale migration.

We also need a modernized asylum system that provides humanitarian support and appropriate legal channels for refugees to pursue their cases in a timely manner. The rules for asylum should be reformed by Congress to guard against unmerited entry and reserve that vital status for its intended recipients.

Increased legal immigration, focused on employment and skills, is also a choice that both parties should be able to get behind. The United States is better off when talented people bring their ideas and aspirations here. We could also improve our temporary entry program, so that seasonal and other short-term jobs can more readily be filled by guest workers who help our economy, support their families and then return home.

As for the millions of undocumented men and women currently living in the United States, a grant of amnesty would be fundamentally unfair to those who came legally or are still waiting their turn to become citizens. But undocumented immigrants should be brought out of the shadows through a gradual process in which legal residency and citizenship must be earned, as for anyone else applying for the privilege. Requirements should include proof of work history, payment of a fine and back taxes, English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and a clean background check. We should never forget that the desire to live in the United States — a worldwide and as powerful an aspiration as ever — is an affirmation of our country and what we stand for. Over the years, our instincts have always tended toward fairness and generosity. The reward has been generations of grateful, hard-working, self-reliant, patriotic Americans who came here by choice.

If we trust those instincts in the current debate, then bipartisan reform is possible. And we will again see immigration for what it is: not a problem and source of discord, but a great and defining asset of the United States.

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