Richard White: Border Crossing (Immigration Debate)

[Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is president of the Organization of American Historians.]

Except for the immigrants themselves, the current public discussion usually involves the usual suspects and is idiotically simple. It is about principles: secure borders and punishing lawbreakers on one side and economic justice and the rights to citizenship on the other. Or, alternatively, it is about economic calculations: immigrants do or do not help the economy. If these discussions were part of my family stories, they would be the blustering uncles, growing red in the face. Everyone else in the room would ignore them.

My being a historian earns me as much derision as respect from my family--"the professor" my mother calls me with both disdain and pride--but for all their differences, there is one place where family stories and academic history resemble each other. They both evoke a nuanced and complex world, and they both appeal to practice more than principles.

A public debate more informed by the complexity of family stories and actual practices of our past would be a better debate, but settling for that is a cliché. If I thought that the take home lesson for historians was that we should be presenting the public with the facts about past immigration laws and the experiences of past immigrants because this would lead to more informed and better decisions, then I would come perilously close to what I have come to think of as the Millard Fillmore fallacy. Whenever I hear someone complaining about Americans' ignorance of history, I think of Millard Fillmore. Would this be a better country if every American knew about Millard Fillmore? I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think so.

But we might be a better country, and better citizens, if we spent less time thinking about easy principles and more time thinking about complicated practices. The best source of complicated practices is the past. History is a habit of mind and not a collection of facts. Most historians know that, just as their families know that families are not run on principles. The hard part is figuring out how to put this knowledge into collective public practice.

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