Last week we directed your attention to a series of pieces on the recent executive order temporarily restricting entry into the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries. Though that order has been stayed following constitutional challenges, the sentiment it represents is very much alive, and for this reason we concluded last week’s briefing with the claim that “whether or not this policy is continued, the fear, insecurity, and blindness to cruelty at the heart of the proposal will remain.”

What do immigrants find when they come to America?

This week, we follow up on that claim by attending to several stories of the immigrant experience in America. While last week’s briefing focused on the legal and political context in which the order emerged, this week’s briefing aims to cut through the abstractions of national politics and provide some human context by addressing the question: What do immigrants find when they come to America?

One thing they often find is a set of cultural rituals and dispositions that communicate that American identity itself is open to change. Recently, British-born writer Andrew Sullivan offered one immigrant’s perspective on these cultural rituals in an account of his own naturalization, subtitled “A love letter to my new country.” Sullivan, who came to America for graduate school in the 1980s, describes his move to America (and the essence of the American dream itself) as “an escape from the past into a country addicted to the future.”

Most nations, especially the England I knew, are defined by history, saturated in its remnants, places where one is never far from the echoes of those who have come before. Nostalgia is almost a national characteristic, the task of regaining previous greatness a Sisyphean ordeal. In Britain, growing up, we were constantly reminded that the supreme national moment was in the past — the “finest hour” of 1940. But here, in this new place, I felt none of that. Here, there was no going back. I saw everywhere a restlessness for what the future could bring, a jumble of crowded, jostling aspirants for a dream directed aggressively forward. And it was infectious.

The sense of being unconstrained by the past is energizing for Sullivan, not just in its openness about the future but in its democratic optimism. Assimilation is uniquely possible for Americans, he writes, because for immigrants, “where you had come from was nowhere near as interesting as where you were going.”


Related: Our take on “Baseball and Becoming American.” Note: pitchers and catchers have reported.


And yet, as Sullivan goes on to say, not every immigrant’s experience is so hopeful. Unlike the millions of African Americans whose ancestors were forcibly enslaved and for whom the legacy of American racism is not “past,” or those immigrants for whom English is not a native tongue, Sullivan benefitted from a number of competitive advantages. Sullivan’s situation is, in other words, quite different from that of Jeanette Vizguerra, a mother, immigration advocate, and former small-business owner currently seeking sanctuary in a Denver church. As the New York Times reports:

Ms. Vizguerra came to the United States from Mexico in 1997. She worked as a janitor and a union organizer, and she later owned a moving and cleaning business. In 2009, she was caught with fake identification that her lawyer said she had acquired in order to work. She pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, setting off a chain of events that led to the deportation order.

Vizguerra’s situation puts a very human face on the recent shift in national immigration policy. In recent weeks, many similar profiles have come to the foreground, including Zakariya Al Sagheer’s piece for Vox, “I’m an Iraqi who risked my life for America. Trump’s visa ban puts my family in grave danger” and the stories of refugees denied access at airports in This American Life’s recent episode, “It’s Working Out Very Nicely.”

Attending to these stories does not solve the ongoing debates about how permissive or restrictive our immigration system should be. There is no direct line from personal narratives to national policies. It does, however, place these debates within the context of the aspirations, fears, and possibilities people find when they are new to this country. And, in attending to the particulars of immigrant experiences, we are confronted with the poverty of terms like “immigrant,” “refugee,” or more pejoratively, “alien,”—like all abstractions, they promise far too much and convey far too little.