A Native American’s perspective on the immigration issue
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Dear U.S and International Immigrants:

This letter is addressed to the immigrants already living here in the United States, and also to those currently living abroad who hope to one day become Americans.

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There is probably no other group with more of a reason to be wary of immigrants to this land than Native Americans. But we do not fear you. Today, we live in a county of immigrants. We welcome you, as we have welcomed generations of immigrants to these shores, since even before this great country was founded.

As we follow the recent discourse about immigration sentiment and policy, it is worth remembering that Native Americans’ tragic history could have become the basis for a permanent grudge that would have prevented today’s debate from ever occurring in the first place.  The genocide of our ancestors by settlers from other continents could have been a rationale for Native people -- the very first Americans -- to seek to block all others who wished to come here in search of freedom. 

But that would have been the wrong path.  In the words of the great Chief Joseph, we have always known that all people “were made by the same great Spirit Chief.”

Ours is a country of immigrants. To be American is to proudly welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  And America is far better off for having welcomed people from all parts of the globe. That welcoming spirit has enabled our country to lead the world, demonstrating by example that we value freedom, equality, justice and the rule of law.

You have enriched our culture and our lives, and we value you in our workplaces and our communities. Here in Central New York, most of our workforce at the Oneida Indian Nation consists of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, and we provide language translators so that they can immediately become part of our team. Meanwhile, in Utica alone, 16,000 refugees have settled in the city in the last three decades – a point of pride for the citizens of our region.

As a sovereign nation, the Oneida people understand the significance of well-delineated boundaries, and we value our strong, distinct cultural identity. We know that America is a place of different groups with different heritages, religions and creeds. We believe this shared diversity is precisely what makes this country so exceptional. 

It is worrisome when some opportunists attempt to use the very same diversity that enriches us to instead stoke division, fear and hatred in an effort to stop more immigrants from coming here. That appeals to mankind’s worst instincts.

We know from painful experience that the threat of terrorism is real, and that our nation must be ever vigilant against those whose seek to do us harm.  Yet, we must not allow fear or extremism to obscure our values by demonizing larger groups of people who bear us no ill will.

As an immigrant, you may be feeling anxiety and trepidation about the policy debate presently unfolding in the United States. Please know that you are not alone in the fight for fairness and equality. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of public outcry against anti-immigrant sentiment.  From small towns to big cities, a broad coalition has united around the causes of inclusion and respect.  These gatherings evince unity around a shared set of principles.  As the first people of this land -- who fought alongside George Washington during the Revolutionary War – the Oneidas are proud to stand with our fellow patriots in promoting these positive values. 

In the coming weeks, we will be working to marshal the energy of Indian Country that has fought so valiantly in so many other important battles in the courts, in the halls of power and in the streets. Whether it is the fight for civil rights, the fight against racist mascots, the fight for sovereignty at Standing Rock or, now, the fight for a welcoming and humane immigration policy, Native Americans know that these conflicts are really part of a larger epochal quest for basic equality.

The righteous cause of welcoming deserving immigrants, and recognizing how much you benefit our society, has lasted for generations and will go on for generations ahead. That is not something to lament -- it is something to cherish, because our cause is just.

As Americans, we believe we have a responsibility to ensure that we leave the world a better place than we received it. The Oneida Nation, as many of the Indian Nations in this great country, believes that to do so, we must consider the impact our actions will have on each of the next seven generations.

So, while I know this may be a troubling time to be an immigrant in America or a foreigner coming to our great country, I urge you to find comfort in knowing that the ongoing quest for equality and human rights will continue. We have strived to create a society that in its hearts, its deeds and its policies recognizes that we are enriched by our diversity having all been made by the same Great Spirit Chief.

Ray Halbritter is Representative of the Oneida Indian Nation, located in Upstate New York. 


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.