Sapere aude is the Latin expression meaning “Dare to know.” The phrase was popularized by Immanuel Kant in a 1784 essay in which he describes the Age of Enlightenment as “Man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity.” Kant then challenges the reader to use reason for his intellectual liberation.
Kant used Sapere aude as the motto for the Enlightenment, and to anchor his advocacy for the use of reason in the realm of human affairs. Today, fittingly, Sapere aude is often used as a motto by educational institutions. Sapere aude seems an appropriate intellectual framework to appreciate immigration in the United States. Let’s dare to know.
It is well-known that the United States has more immigrants than any other nation in the world. Nearly forty-five million people living in the U.S today -including this writer- were born in another country. This accounts for 13.7% of the U.S population. The U.S. foreign-born population has nearly tripled since 1970 when it was reported at 4.8%. My statistical source for this column is the Pew Research Center, which regularly publishes statistical portraits of the foreign-born population of the United States.
According to the Pew Research Center, 77%, of immigrants, are in the U.S. legally. Of these, 45% are naturalized U.S. citizens, 23% are permanent residents, and 5% are temporary residents. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S is approximately 10.5 million -about 23% of all immigrants. Unauthorized immigrants account for 3.2% of the nation’s population. The top country of origin for the U.S. immigrant population is Mexico which accounts for 25% of all U.S. immigrants. It is followed by China (6%), India 6%), the Philippines (4%), and El Salvador (3%).
The United States is often said to be a nation of immigrants, and so it is, and has always been. Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution of the United States were immigrants. That is, 18% of the quintessential Americans we call our Founding Fathers were immigrants. Two of the Founders most associated with the passage of the American Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, and James Wilson were foreign-born. Three of the six Supreme Court Justices appointed by George Washington to interpret this new Constitution were immigrants; James Wilson from Scotland, James Iredell from England, and William Patterson from Ireland.
Similarly, of the 81 Congressmen in the first Congress, eight were immigrants. Thomas Paine, one of the best-known Founders, and author of Common Sense (1776), perhaps the most influential pamphlet that helped inspire the American Revolution, was English born. Common Sense was so influential in arousing the American Revolution that John Adams wrote: “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” U.S. history is indeed immigration-centric.
Notwithstanding the role of migrants in U.S. history, today some anti-immigrant groups in the United States perceive migrants, not just as an economic burden, but as some sort of terrorist threat. These groups perceive immigrants as a conspiratorial existential risk to the nation itself. Conspiratorial theories of this type are emotionally appealing because of their simplicity; they explain away, with one class of wrongdoers, our complex social phenomena. Immigrant conspiracy theories also provide the believer with a sense of having special, privileged knowledge. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, these groups are prisoners of their own thinking; immigration may not be a problem, but thinking it makes it so.
The motivations to leave one’s homeland are diverse but essentially fall into an economic or political category or both. Fundamentally, migration expresses a desire for the liberty to improve one’s quality of life. Freedom of movement within a country is a basic human right, and there is no valid ethical argument to treat individuals differently because they were born outside a national boundary. Individual rights are not ours by virtue of our place of birth. Individual rights are universal.
Our democracy is open and inclusive, but at times it turns restrictive and exclusionary. We must dare to know our history, as a nation of immigrants, to keep from stepping on each other’s rights as we try to tango.