During the recent raging inferno of the Southern California fires, desperate poor families of color once again had to seek solace from an overwhelming natural disaster by huddling into the home of a professional football team and once again were humiliated by our national government. This time, instead of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Black families fleeing Katrina, they were the So-Cal fire refugees, San Diego area farm workers, and the government agency was the INS, La Migra. Just after midnight on Oct. 24th the Border Patrol and local police began rousting families who had barely escaped with their lives to check to see if they remembered to bring their green cards. Anyone Hispanic looking who did not have IDs was ejected from the stadium as agents harassed and detained legal and illegal immigrants alike, as well as other under-documented suspected Hispanics.
This same week New York state governor, Eliot Spitzer, continued to roast in the firestorm of controversy over his decision to join Arizona, Vermont and Washington in the process of licensing foreign nationals driving vehicles in his state, provided they had valid passports from their home countries. Right wing xenophobes, including CNN’s Lou Dobbs, frothed at the mouth vilifying Spitzer as an illegal alien enabler. (It’s worth noting that Dobbs’ repetitiously repetitious use of “arrogant” as an epithet while belittling Sptizer could not help but remind one of the old playground retort about rubber and glue.)
Also that same week GOP wannabe candidate bottom feeder Tom Tancredo tried to gobble up a little attention by narcing out IL senator Dick Durbin’s press conference on the DREAM act, a proposal to allow immigrants US citizenship for risking their lives in the military. Ever the loyal patriot, Tancredo called in to tip off the INS that illegals would probably be there. Like so many Republican voters have done, the INS simply ignored Tancredo. But between naps second tier GOP sleeper, Fred Thompson, has recently tried to generate some nativist traction by proposing that cities and states be stripped of their federal funding if they allow illegal immigrants in their midst, suggesting that the fugitive slave act is still alive and well in Tennessee. Even GOP stalwarts acknowledge that kind of law would be a tall order.
And so, in a time when the mainstream media would have you believe that the allowable debate on the immigration issue is A) punish ‘em a lot or B) punish ‘em a lot more, let me offer a suggestion that even Bill Richardson isn’t secure enough in his paperwork to suggest. Let’s make immigration legal. Bring on your tired huddled masses and let’s let them breathe free. America living up to its ideals? Sure it’s a harebrained notion, but hey, this is supposedly a comedy column.
Let me open with a story: long ago and far away I grew up in rural south Texas not far from the Rio Grande border. Illegal immigrants were an extremely visible fact of daily life. The border patrol had guards right on the river and then there is a second perimeter of checkpoints about 50 miles in. The town I grew up in was the last town south of the interior border. As an Anglo in South Texas, that is, in general, 80% Latino, I grew up a minority and spent much time in the company of people who spoke a different language than me. You get used to it and I didn’t think to wonder where the people around me fit along the spectrum from full-blooded US citizens for generations since that land was taken from their great-great-great-great-grandparents in the Mexico-American War 1848, down through second and first generation US citizens, to documented aliens, to illegals who had been there for decades, to those who’d slipped across the river that morning.
It was all business as usual UNTIL, one day in my early 20s when I was looking for work and took a job at a commercial plant nursery. The work was tedious, and the pay was minimum wage, but I knew, or thought I knew the owner, a former professional football player who now hustled himself up a living in a variety of ways, including this nursery. Like I said the work was tedious and, as usual with the manual labor jobs I did plenty of in South Texas, I spent most of my time surrounded by people who didn’t speak English to me except when absolutely necessary. Finally, Friday arrived and we gathered ’round for our paychecks. The owner stepped up on a table, and his foremen gathered closely around him. The owner then waved a fist full of envelopes at us and called out that he would distribute the checks to all workers who could show him their social security cards.
A panic of confusion filled the room as the workers gathered frantically to figure out what he was saying. I too was scared, for even though I remembered the number, I hadn’t seen my actual paper social security card in years, but he called out to me and handed me an envelope without pause. Then he went back to explaining in broken Spanish that there was some sort of law that said he only had to pay people who could prove they were US citizens. The foremen were still working at controlling the crowds when I walked out and never went back.
I had worked the same hours as the other people and had my pay, but it wasn’t because I had a piece of paper in my pocket with a series of numbers on it. And it wasn’t because I was a better worker than those other men who had sweated and strained. I surely was not. It was because of which side of a river I had been born on and, like the others, that man could have gotten away with cheating me if I had been born just 30 miles more South. I was so incredibly ashamed of being a White, Anglo, American, of even being associated in any way with that guy that I winced for years anytime I even had to pass by that nursery.
Nowadays I teach junior high in Western Arizona where the line between one country and another isn’t even a river, just an invisible stripe somewhere in a desert. The school where I now work is 65% Hispanic, including some whose trip across that line is still fairly fresh. In my classes I am currently teaching about the 1920s and we are learning that one of the leading social movements of the time was called the “nativist movement,” essentially a political reform movement based a rallying cry something like “America for us ‘mericans!” a oft recurring slogan in US history; one which every citizen of color clearly understands to translate out to: White People Only. While that is simplified version of the politics of the more mainstream members of this movement it aptly captures the sentiments of their more strident branches like the then recently revived KKK who reviled not only Blacks, but also Catholics, Jews and immigrants of all stripe. It was essentially the same laundry list Hitler would use a decade later to set up his cleansing of Europe. It is worth noting that the KKK is again managing to revive itself on the immigrant issue with new news stories about KKK justifying their hatemongering in Arizona and Alabama because of the threat of “those durned foreigners.”
Back in America in the 1920s the nativist movement gained adherents of all classes, though, obviously, not necessarily all colors. Politically the movement successfully established strict immigration quotas in general and virtually eliminated émigrés from African and Asian countries. This political movement was in reaction to an as of today still unequaled period of immigration between 1900 and 1920 when up to 20,000,000 immigrants, mostly from non-English speaking countries, teemed up on our tempest tossed shore. Their numbers swelled the population from 70 to 100,000,000. This is important to remember the size of that immigrant wave because, even though the present wave of immigrants is also twenty million, that figure is a ratio equal to more than triple the current wave of immigration we are now seeing. It is small wonder then that the nativists were scared. They were on their way to being outnumbered.
It is also worth noting though, that this was not the first such nativist movement to resort to claims of patriotism to their underlying racism. In fact, former massively unpopular president Martin Van Buren made one of his several unsuccessful runs for the presidency in the 1850s with the “Know Nothing” party which championed expulsion of all foreign born residents in America. The 1860s era of this movement was portrayed in the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. At that time the offending immigrant minority were the Irish, whom like immigrants today, were expected to trade military service for citizenship and occasionally shipped right off of one boat (the freighters from Europe) onto the other (the troop transports heading South).
There should be no doubt that immigrants have always and always will have a powerful impact on the country. Just ask the Awaraks what they thought of the Spanish who moved here with that Italian, Columbus. Or the Powhatan of the arrival of the colonists at Jamestown, or the residents along the Rio Grande of the coming of Zachary Taylor or for that matter you could just as well ask the Alaskan mammoths what they thought about the coming of the cavemen.
I personally feel that the changes to the country are inevitable, but, given that political power in this country is a zero-sum game, I don’t see the transition as ever having been, nor likely to be a smooth one. I am convinced that the forecasts are true that, by the middle of this century, providing there is still an America, the dominant ethnic group will be the Hispanic, largely the children of immigrants, just the latter 20th century population explosion was the result of the children and grandchildren of the immigration wave of the early 20th century. Through my mother’s second marriage; I myself am one of those step-grandchildren of “durned foreigners” who didn’t know a word of English when they washed up on Ellis Island.
Way back when, the dire predictions made about that group of immigrants a century earlier did have some truth to them: They didn’t speak the language and so were slow to assimilate and surrender their cultures. There were pockets of intense poverty and the resultant suffering and increased crime. There was also a moral shift in the country from the agrarian fundamentalist society of the American 1800s to the “decadent” cosmopolitan urban society we see today. I expect that all those things, or this century’s variation on them, are in the offing with the current wave of immigrants.
But in looking back at that movement I also see a rich infusion of ideas and energy, of styles and fashions and foods and the myriad of cultures that make America the interesting place it is and I look forward to finding out what exciting ideas and energies this generation of émigrés will bring. And I hope that like their forefathers they will help promote and perpetuate the comparatively tolerant country people like me depend on to exist. In the nativist all-white all “normal” world of the 1880s per se, an essentially radical personality such as myself would have been either neutralized or eliminated.
Knowing all this, I think that the problem of immigrants coming to the US from Mexico in illegal ways could best be solved by loosening restrictions, not tightening them. If you really want to end illegal immigration, make immigration legal. Surely any rational person can accept that an immigrant would much rather enter the country through a functional welcoming low-cost official border crossing than by spending his life savings to risk life, limb and jail-time trying to sneak in through the middle of one of the least hospitable deserts on the planet. Surely every one accepts that an immigrant would much rather fill out commonsense paperwork in a language they could read to take a job at a reasonable wage than to have to seriptiously take sub-existence wages in a shadow economy, where one error or one objection could lead not just to firing, but deportation.
I further assert that we might as well make immigration legal since there is no legitimate political will in the US to seriously attempt to end illegal immigration. Intentions of the immigrants aside, just like the “drug problem,” it’s the demand that guarantees the supply. And I am not just talking about nannies, gardeners and maids. Too many “legitimate” American businesses “illegitimately” thrive on the cheap labor they enjoy from keeping immigrants under the table. And it is not just the backyard back-of-the-pickup landscaping companies I’m referring to. We have seen somewhat public scandals involving corporate giants like McDonalds, Swift and Tyson; and those are just the ones that have surfaced. As long as corporations embrace the practice of employing and exploiting immigrant workers, we will never see an end.
I believe that Bush is aware of the importance of the underground economy. His uncharacteristic ineffectiveness on immigration in either direction simply shows me it wasn’t something he wanted to have changed. Certainly his constituents, who are quite clearly not the American people, aren’t in favor of reform.
And so our ideals claiming to be to contrary and our national “leadership” (I told you this was a comedy column) opposing action on it, xenophobes can rant all they want, but we are not likely to see further restrictions on immigration, so why not just make immigration legal. Yes, immigration changes things and not in all ways for the better; but no, I don’t believe that that is a reason to stop it, or to waste political energy and taxpayer money to further fail at stopping it. And please can we take action soon so those creeps on our southern border who call themselves “Minutemen” will stop crowing about their so-called patriotism and have to acknowledge that what they actually are, are bigots with guns.
Instead allowing this stalemate to keep going, couldn’t we just legislate it and improve the lives of the people who suffer due to the oppression designed to keep one group of people poor and scared and another wealthy and callous. Free those who feed us from having to fear the midnight knock at the door and all the Tancredos of the world looking to grub a few votes. Not just amnesty from prosecution, but a reprieve from the persecution immigrants face each day simply to feed their families and inevitably, ours.