Why did we become fearful of immigrants?

Earth as seen the edge of the solar system taken by Voyager 1 Image credit: Nasa

I’ve undergone a lot of soul-searching since arriving in the USA four months ago. I left behind a great job, an easy lifestyle, universal healthcare and a beautiful country to move to California. I’m also middle-aged and trying to build a career in a city which values the young. The shootings over the past weeks in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton certainly have made me question why I came.

But I decided the risk was worth it – it was an opportunity to see and experience a country that influences so much of the world, to learn and grow as a person, and to challenge myself. Perhaps it’s because I’m a descendant of immigrants – as is every non-indigenous person in New Zealand – a child of generations of people who sought better lives, searched for love, prosperity or just sheer adventure.

So why has this intolerance grown for a trait that has defined humanity for eons? What is wrong with being an immigrant and where did this fear come from?

In his book Pale Blue Dot, the astronomer Carl Sagan spoke of this urge we have to “wander”.

“We invest far-off places with a certain romance. The appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game – none of this lasts forever. Your own life, your own band’s or even your species might be owed to a restless few, drawn be a craving they could hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”

For good or ill, the world has been shaped by the restless ones and immigration will always be part of human culture. It is embedded in our genes. I cannot comprehend why so many people fear this, unless it is at the base level a conflict between this who can embrace change and those who cannot.

Of course, many have no choice, and are driven from their homes, but they show a bravery and tenacity to simply survive that surely must be admired?

I’ve lived in four other countries – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and now the USA. Each experience has gifted me with a wider worldview and an understanding that we are all different but all the same. I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way and count myself lucky to have had these experiences and interacted with so many cultures.

There is no doubt Los Angeles is a tough city and looking for work and navigating the often bewildering bureaucracy has been a lesson in endurance and resilience, but I’m gaining so much in return. Americans have a boldness and open-heartedness that is drawing me out of my subdued Kiwi nature and making me bolder and stronger. I love the mix of cultures and sheer energy of California, and hope to see more if America.

It would be naive not to acknowledge that there aren’t profound social issues as well as gun control – homelessness, healthcare costs, income disparity – but these are global issues, every country has these problems in one form or another. We have to work together to solve them.

We all benefit from immigration – from movement between countries, it gave us our languages, numbers, amazing food, and also different ways of thinking. Immigration has never been the problem – it is always the fear of the other – the fear of the different. How do we solve it? I don’t know, but we have to as there are far greater problems facing us. Pulling together as humanity – as one – is the only way to prevent the tragedy of climate change unfolding on future generations. We have to save our pale blue dot. To quote Sagan again, who says it so much better than I could:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”