07/21/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

Stop Pulling Up the Ladder on Immigrants: The Wilberforce Act and Our Short National Memory About Immigration

"We're bound together because, like them, we too dare to hope -- hope that our children will always find here the land of liberty in a land that is free. We dare to hope too that we'll understand our work can never be truly done until every man, woman, and child shares in our gift, in our hope, and stands with us in the light of liberty..." -Ronald Reagan

"The earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born free should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases." -Chief Joseph, Nimiipu chief

QUICK STORY: Up here on the Northwest coast around this time of the year, the Tribes have an annual celebration called "Tribal Journeys." On Tribal Journeys, each Tribe has individual small families that travel by canoe ("Canoe Families") to other Tribal communities on the coast. It's a beautiful time of recognizing and acknowledging our ancestors' resourcefulness and ways of being -- our ancestors lived difficult lives, yet they were full of purpose (survival, feeding the community!) and intention. Historically, our folks passed through other homelands for trade, on the way to hunt, or sometimes simply to visit.

During Tribal Journeys, when a canoe lands at each individual Tribal homeland, the individual canoe families ask for permission to come ashore. This practice is in deference to thousands of years of history -- people who landed on the shore were in extremely vulnerable positions as the folks on shore almost invariably had the high ground if there was a problem. They were vulnerable. Therefore, the canoe family wisely clarify that they come in peace -- they've been paddling all day and are exhausted and simply hope to eat and sleep until they get back in the water toward their ultimate destination.

At each individual locale, the protocol was different. Different Tribes had different relationships with each other -- some Tribes did not get along with each other because of a perceived or real scarcity of resources. Fish. Clams. Women. Timber. These things created tension. Yet, despite those tensions, when someone came on shore and proclaimed that they "came in peace" and went through the required protocols, the hosting Tribes assumes sincerity and good faith. Sometimes erroneously (genocide, anyone?). But at the very least, the home Tribe would hear them out.

"What's your story? Why are you here? We'll hear you out."


The relatively small number of white folks who oppose the brown, oftentimes Indigenous, children coming across the border pursuant to the Wilberforce Act and who don't want these kids to simply get their day in court (literally) are incredible hypocrites and the ironies run deep. As you probably read, the Wilberforce Act simply allows unaccompanied minors from non-contiguous nations to the US (e.g., not Canada and not Mexico) to receive due process with an intake and a hearing in front of an immigration judge. A day in court. A protocol.

Just like the protocol requirements for arriving canoes on Tribal Journeys. Since time immemorial, there was an opportunity to be heard when you arrived in someone's homeland on this continent.

It's a matter of historical fact that most Native nations welcomed the vulnerable European immigrants, understanding that these pitiful people need our help; maybe we can be stronger as a group if we get their resources on our side. Maybe not. In either event, let's hear them out. As John Mohawk brilliantly articulated, "During the early years, when the English, the Dutch, the Swedes and the French were weak, the Indians insisted on treaty relationships, on a separation of law and territory. Thus, the earliest agreements have the air of treaties, and the earliest treaties reflect Indian thinking about cultural diversity and the right to continue as distinct peoples."

The beginning of this nation's melting pot, and also the beginning of a process to find out whether or not these immigrants came for honorable reasons. Most people of all colors understand that and acknowledge that they benefited from generous immigration policy. But there's always a few...

Now, as the facts have changed and it's young Indigenous kids coming into this nation to escape violence, it's scary and sad to watch these fired-up white people scream hatred and vitriol. Make no mistake -- these are vulnerable kids in a strange land, Indigenous kids, who not only don't speak English, but also don't speak Spanish. They're coming across the border to seek better opportunities and oftentimes to escape persecution and the imminent threat of violence (indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees unambiguously called these children "refugees"). Many of them are literally leaving the nation -- Honduras -- with the highest murder rate in the world. Obviously there's a paradox -- those few white folks, who scream hate so loud at these poor kids -- their ancestors came to this nation to seek better opportunities and sometimes to escape persecution. But now that they've escaped the fire from those situations, their descendants choose to pull up the ladder on the brown-skinned people seeking similar refuge and leave them in danger.

Here's the punch line -- most of us who sympathize with the children coming across the border aren't asking for a rubber stamped approval for these children to be granted citizenship/asylum on the spot. No, instead what most of us want is simply to hear them out -- let the process happen, and if this qualifies as a situation duly contemplated under the Wilberforce Act, then take action. If not, that's unfortunate, but the law is what it is. These are factual questions -- the Wilberforce Act doesn't say that there is a ministerial action that happens upon presentation of the facts to the judge. It simply says that the facts are important and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

FYI, the Wilberforce Act was a bipartisan law, signed by Republican President George W. Bush. The terms of this bipartisan law are not "loopholes" as has been argued -- it's the law, stupid; argued, dissected and fully vetted by Republicans and Democrats alike. That's not a "loophole," unless either party is somehow stupid enough to allow a "loophole" past their myriad legislative aides, lawyers, advocacy groups, etc., etc.

Just follow the process. Don't let your elected officials succumb to the pressure of a few hypocrites/bigots with loud microphones. Hear these immigrants out the same way that this nation's Indigenous people heard this nation's white ancestors out. That's what the Wilberforce Act requires.

Hear them out. Stop pulling up the ladder.

Gyasi Ross is a father, an author and an attorney. He grew up on both the Blackfeet and Suquamish Indian Reservations and continues to work and live within his community. He is the author of two books, How To Say I Love You In Indian and Don't Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways), both available at He also writes his own column for Indian Country Today Media Network called "The Thing About Skins."