In many interviews after the #CharlieHebdo attacks, European academics and journalists pointed to the lack of integration as a key motivator by so-called radicalized Europeans of Muslim faith. Unlike America, experts argued that these immigrants and their citizen children have been socially and politically excluded from society. As someone who has spent more than a decade reporting on immigration's impact on the U.S., from Texas' Rio Grande Valley to the immigration marches of 2006, to the current immigration impasse in Washington, I was shocked by this assertion. Didn't Europeans know about the recent anti-immigration measures in Arizona and Alabama penned to exclude immigrants, specifically Latinos? Did they miss the news that the Department of Homeland Security is close to a shutdown as Congressional Republicans attempt to thwart President Obama's immigration executive actions?
As the current tenor of the immigration debate in America becomes more toxic, we should look to Europe as a case study of the most extreme consequences derived from systematically excluding a large group of people. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. or their children will commit an act of terror. However, Republican lawmakers and judges are engaging in rhetoric and creating policies and laws that target and marginalize unauthorized immigrants. This exclusion not only limits these immigrants' social and economic opportunities. It also impedes the natural process of integration that occurs with each successive generation. In the most extreme case, alienation of a large group of people could create the conditions that lead to tragic consequences.
America is "a nation of immigrants" includes the mass arrival in the 19th century from Europe and Asia and today's surge from Mexico and Central America. But immigrants are more than a quaint quote from our country's mythology. They cost money, needing to be educated and treated when they get sick. Years of political inertia and now paralysis in Washington have stuck local communities with an increasingly expensive bill, a festering social resentment I observed when I lived in Brownsville, Texas. This is why it came as no surprise when federal Judge Andrew Hanen whose court is located in this border town recently issued a decision to block President Obama's executive action to expand deportation protections.
Yet in the final cost/benefit analysis, immigrants have always provided the labor force upon which industry, transportation, cities, and the economy thrive. This success could only happen in a society tolerant of religious, racial, and ethnic difference. Opportunity is the great integrator--and that comes in the form of jobs for workers but also policies which integrate and tighten these threads from difference nations who contribute and become an integral part of the American social quilt.
In contrast, years of intolerance towards difference, combined with a lack of economic opportunity, left a vulnerability in the heart of Europe. In 2008 with the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London terror attacks still fresh, I was selected as a European Union fellow to compare the integration of immigrants there and in America. Spending a week meeting with members of the European Parliament and social agency heads in Strasbourg and Brussels, all handed me reports documenting how great things were for immigrants and their kids, especially Muslims! But after work hours and with the help of alcoholic truth serum, a member of the European Parliament confided that Muslims "just didn't integrate." I wandered immigrant neighborhoods, speaking with many Muslims, including a Moroccan busboy who said he wanted to immigrate to America because no matter his education or ambition, in Europe his options were limited. Why? He would never be seen or accepted as European. He would always be an outsider.
Is everyone who is made to feel like an outsider going to blow up a building? Absolutely not. But the terror attacks in Europe should prompt a conversation and actions among citizens and leaders about the costs of long-term marginalization measured against short-term political gains such as picking up legislative seats. Policies, rhetoric, and laws that promote tolerance of difference, champion integration, and create opportunity strengthen countries and cultures. As we continue grappling with immigration, which values will the U.S. embrace?