In Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke, the protagonist's mother, an Italian immigrant to the United States, does not fulfill the garlic-scented stereotype of American pasta commercials. Instead, she lives in a house crammed with old furniture in Iowa, the state she moved to as a young medical student, to take advantage of the elusive "American Dream."
"The truth is," Palahniuk writes, "Immigrants tend to be more American than people born here."
Despite immigrants being a core part of the U.S. identity, immigration control and border security remain tense issues for the American public. There's a long list of problems with our current approach, including the exploitation of undocumented immigrants and people dying at our borders. As Al-Jazeera reports, fewer unauthorized immigrants cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. today, but those who do "are pushed into an unforgiving zone called the Corridor of Death, where they risk everything to cross."
Immigration policy is in dire need of reform, and on June 30, President Barack Obama vowed to take executive action on comprehensive immigration reform after Speaker John Boehner informed the president that the House wouldn't vote on legislation this year.
The U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on anxiety about borders; in Europe, anti-immigration sentiment has fueled hate crimes and acts of violence. But for a lesson on how immigrants should actually be treated, the U.S. and the western world might want to look to Canada for a few tips.
There are many similarities between the U.S. and its neighbor to the north. It's no coincidence that some of our favorites in Hollywood, including Ellen Page, Ryan Gosling and Seth Rogen, are all Canadian exports. The two countries have similar cultures, thanks to their shared colonial history, as well as long-running and close diplomatic ties.
In an effort to drive its economy, Canada adopted open-immigration policies in the 1970s, relaxing restrictions and opening its borders. To Canadians, accepting immigrants into their country is a part of the country's nation-building, and the influx of people improves, not divides, the nation. It's what has made Toronto one of the most diverse in the world.
Even the Canadian government reports that immigration has helped, not hindered, social cohesion and political engagement. New research by the Canadian government suggests that this has something to do with the fact that the country sensitive to integrating immigrants since its inception in 1867, thanks to the many differences between the English in Ottawa and the French in Quebec. Without a clearly defined national identity, Canada prides itself on being welcoming to foreigners.
Demographics reporter Joe Friesen of the Globe and Mail writes that immigration has encouraged innovation, international trade and the attractiveness of cities. Speaking to Peter Dungan, an economist at University of Toronto, Friesen learns that providing immigrants with more tools to succeed benefits the country as a whole. Dungan says that an increase of 100,000 immigrants would translate into a 2.3% increase in real GDP over the following ten years.
Including immigrants more enthusiastically in society could improve America's sense of unity and boost its economy. Immigrants bring new opportunities in business and the labor force, and many Canadians get that (apart from the country's current government, which has passed some seriously eyebrow-raising restrictions on immigration).
Immigrants have made the United States what it is today. However, xenophobia and racism are regularly peddled in the public sphere, even in the most benign of conversations. Take, for example, conservative pundit Ann Coulter's recent remarks about soccer. Coulter describes the popularity of the sport as evidence of the country's "moral decay," since anyone with deep roots in the U.S. would not follow it.
It's the sort of rhetoric that feeds the thriving anti-immigrant movement, with a handful of official organizations working across the country.
Consider how much of what makes us proud of the United States was built by immigrants. More than 40% of Fortune 500 Companies were started by immigrants. Their role in important sectors of the economy is critical, from high-skilled math and sciences to agriculture and the service industry to information technology.
That contribution to our economy also includes undocumented workers, most of whom pay taxes despite being made invisible by the law. Why not open the doors to participation in the basic aspects of American society?
If we can learn anything from Canada, it's that we should embrace what immigrants have already done for our country. It could open the door to a brighter future for the U.S.