There are many reasons not to persecute (or prosecute) undocumented residents, refugees, and asylum seekers. A commonly cited and good reason: it is inhumane. Another: they enrich our society through their labor and their cultural presence. A third commonly cited reason is that the United States has always been a country of immigrants and we must remain true to this legacy.
I find this third reason problematic. It’s true the US was founded and populated by immigrants. It is also true that the first many waves of white immigrants—my ancestors—had zero right to be here. (Whether we have a right today is, I think, open to debate.) Our presence, then and now, is based on stealing or coercing land from indigenous peoples who did not—and, in many cases, still do not—want us here. I find it hard to celebrate immigration when its legacy is land theft, to say nothing of slavery, which brought millions of people into misery here against their will.
But by this same token—that our modern world is shaped by imperialism and colonization—I’ll offer another reason for welcoming immigrants today:
We owe them. The United States owes them. Most undocumented people willing to face danger and death to come to the US, or other developed nations, are coming because of Euro-American colonialism. They are coming because European-based powers devastated traditional models of living, destroyed working (if imperfect) cultures, wrecked land, stripped resources, enslaved people, enshrined racism, opened sweat shops, and demanded unfair trade deals to profit themselves. The US alone did not do all of this, but it has directly perpetrated or participated as a business and/or political partner in much of it.
And then there’s climate crisis. More and more refugees will be fleeing because their land can no longer support them due to climate change. And this is very concretely numerically hugely the fault of the United States. Trump’s antics aside, the US since 1850 has contributed about 27% of cumulative CO2 emissions, more than any other single nation. It is not unreasonable to argue that it should pay for about 27% of the damage, which could well include sheltering quite a large number of displaced people.
We broke it, we bought it: a basic principle of commerce. The US contributed to breaking the world. Justice and reason dictate we pay our share of the debt.