07/02/2010 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Franklin! Carnegie! Einstein! Canseco! Brin! Why Immigrants Matter Independence Weekend


What a pungent irony for President Obama to deliver his major speech on immigration reform on the threshold of Independence Day: The issue and the holiday dredge up and expose our nation's conflicted attitudes toward immigrants - and toward our own national values.

America's love-hate relationship to immigrants mirrors its love-hate relationship to Uncle Sam. Latino immigrants are often surrogates for widespread suspicion about government spending and programs. Immigration inflames our anxieties over this country's economic and cultural future.

At this tender historical moment, many wonder: What responsibilities must immigrants shoulder under the American social contract? And conversely: What political and economic bill of rights should immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, have under our democracy?

The Democrats' reform push arrives swarmed by a deep, haunting erosion in the basic trust Americans hold for the government and public institutions.

Americans fret over the quality, and even solvency, of basic public resources. Notably, many public institutions and services (Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, the state university systems, etc) did not exist or were in their infancy during the last era of great immigration, the 1880 to 1910 influx of southern and eastern Europeans. After this immense wave -- during the Great Depression -- government at all levels embarked new policies to help the nation's poor, sick, and suffering.

Now things have changed: Immigrants make claims on public goods and services.

From the New Deal to the first part of the 1960s Great Society programs, Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. That liberalism "sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest," according to Michael Tomasky, editor of Democracy journal.

How will immigration fare under Obama's brand of liberalism?

Mentioning the words "security" and "accountability" three times each in his major speech, the president wants to triangulate the issue and placate conservatives.

Immigration raises the stakes in our on-going struggle to perfect this democracy. No less so than vetting judicial nominees like Elena Kagan, or reforming our campaign finance laws, or improving voting participation - the well-known shibboleths of democracy lovers - integrating immigrants meaningfully into our political, economic, and civic life is a crucial test to our country's operation.

Neglecting immigrants' rights and continuing their exclusion -- or cobbling together a quick-fix, security-first immigration reform -- might alleviate immediate social tensions, but worsens them disastrously in the long run. Such non-solutions portend a country rife with continued ethnic balkanization, vast wealth disparity, and a racial caste system rotted by immigrant exploitation, a country where ordinary Americans, embittered, "check out" from their democratic responsibilities.

Active citizenship requires more than just voting. An optimal democracy requires social inclusion and involvement. You cannot get full participation in the life of a society until people, citizens and non-citizens, are invested as full members. Stemming the cultural disintegration now prevalent in the nation, and reforming immigration, are crucial to the long-term quality of our democracy.

More so than "security first" and extra border patrol, those are the principals we should remember on Independence Day weekend and in planning for reform.

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