Thursday, March 13, 2008

Who we were, what we lost

In the past months several friends have attempted to glean my opinion on the so-called immigration crisis, that being the flavor-of-the-week news item. Indeed, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, eclipsing at times even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the clueless arrogance of the Bush administration, the wholesale pandering for votes by the latest sorry crop of presidential candidates, the escalating cost of oil, our shrinking dollar, global warming and its adverse localized effect, The Winter That Would Not End. So far I’ve remained silent, preferring to let greater minds than mine try to find answers to an unanswerable question. Now, though, I’m willing to offer my take on the subject: When your world is going to hell, find a scapegoat.

Such is not my course of action, but I see it in the hysteria surrounding the immigration policies being bandied about by politicians only too eager to have other issues draw attention away from their own shortcomings, failures and outright corruptions. 

It was the book, “Blood and Thunder, the Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West,” by Hampton Sides, that brought me out of the closet. After reading of the invasion of Canyon de Chelly and the ruin of the Navajo nation, I discerned a pattern that was poignantly fresh. 

Imagine, if you will, from a Navajo’s perspective the encroaching hordes of Irish, Germans, Scots, Brits, French, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Slavs and other Anglo-Saxon races fresh off the European continent and the East Coast, not to mention the Spanish siphoning up the Rio Grande and the Camino Real. At first a trickle, then an unstoppable flood, the Native Americans watched their lands being overrun by outsiders—thievery in their words, Manifest Destiny in ours. 

If you can imagine how they must have felt, multiply that by the countless other tribes that were here first, who considered their lands not only home, but sacred to their sense of place.

Does it remind you of how many Americans feel about the incoming waves of immigrants flowing unstoppable across our southern borders? “This is our land,” they say. “You aren’t welcome.” Any Native American would find humor in this.

This is merely the latest mass movement across this northern continent, and trying to stop it would be like trying to hold back the tides or the stop the spinning of our planet. 

I’m well aware of the dangers involved. Robert Kaplan’s excellent book, “An Empire Wilderness,” points out the demographical shifts and the associated social upheavals following the rise of huge meat packing plants in Dodge City and other Midwestern areas when large influxes of minorities were brought in, first Vietnamese, then Hispanics. Crime rates along the Mexican-U.S. border are legendary. The inability of local, state and national infrastructures to deal with crushing numbers of illegal immigrants is stretching, if not destroying, resources in hundreds of places. Companies who hire illegal workers are often guilty of undercutting local pay rates to the detriment of established businesses. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are reasons for this movement, and to stanch it we must correct the underlying issues. It won’t be easy; it might be impossible, considering the differing political spheres across dozens of nations. America, however, has elected to create a Berlin wall along our southern border. Not the northern border, mind you, or along the porous coasts, but from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

The problem, in other words, isn’t social policies in Mexico and points south, or the unimaginable wealth to be had in America—it’s the immigrants themselves. Brown-skinned, black-haired, speakers of a foreign tongue, threatening our American (white) way of life.

It reminds me of what a woman told me not long ago.

“I’m not a racist,” she insisted, “but we need to stop them from coming in.”

Them who? Mexicans? Asians? Guatemalans? Hmong? Chinese? Russians? Who are they? And if by them we mean Mexicans, have the guts to say so. And then tell me why we need to stop them. I’m still a little fuzzy on that.

Talk is cheap, but I smell racism at the core of the debate.

I’m seriously considering taking up Spanish again, not only in preparation for our next trip across the border but because it will sooner rather than later become the dominant language of the United States. And I want to be able to meet these newcomers with something more than fear, hate and distrust. I want to say, ¿Còmo està usted? I want to say, Bienvenida, mì amigos. 

I’m also cognizant of my own prejudices. I believe the Islamization of Europe has disturbing consequences for the entire world, not because of their race but because of their violence at the core of their beliefs. I’m equally leery of the Christian right, who have the same ideals and better teeth.

In other words, before you condemn me, understand that I realize my own inconsistencies and admit that I have no solutions for what seems an insurmountable problem. Building a wall and deporting hundreds of thousands of people, though, is not the answer.

On the base of the Statue of Liberty a bronze plaque reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Looking at the course Americans seem to favor toward immigration, we should pry that sucker off and toss it into the sea, melt it down for another panel in the southern border fence, or better yet, enshrine it in a museum where our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can come and see who, in the words of a poet, we once were.


Anonymous said...

An interesting article. Migrations have been going on since humans could walk upright. However, Irish, Scots, French, Czechs, Poles, Russians, and other Slavs are not Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic people who migrated to Britain around the 5th century, pushing out the Romano-Briton people. Then several hundred years later the Normans from France invaded and took over from the Anglo-Saxons. So, it seems history is just repeating itself these days.

Tom Parker said...

I just knew somebody would find a hole in my story. I stand corrected. I'm pleased that the premise stands. Thanks for the info. Next time I'll do my homework better.

Jenni said...

You make some excellent points. I've thought about some of these things myself, but I hadn't thought about it from the point of view of our own history as immigrants. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to put myself and people I know in that position even while thinking of Emma Lazarus' famous poem. It's obvious to me that most Americans would not think of it from that perspective, and perhaps that is a large part of our problem.

I've been mulling this issue over a lot lately. My Texas relatives are very outspoken about their opinions on the immigrant problem. My husband (a construction worker) has worked with people he suspects are illegal immigrants and says their work ethic is often better than that of the average American.

Recently I looked back through some notes I took while reading John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley and found this quote from page 64.
"It occurs to me that, just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work. I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat."
It occurs to me that many of these jobs which employ illegal immigrants are not jobs that are being taken from American citizens but jobs that we don't want to do. It seems many Americans would rather draw unemployment or welfare than wash eggs or work at a meat processing plant. For some reason we think we're above this kind of work, but we'll argue whether or not someone else has the right to do it.

Anonymous said...

A nation can survive it's fools, even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves among those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the allies, heard even in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies within the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear."

Marcus Tullius Cicero)-42-BC

Anonymous said...

You said it all so well. I haven't words such as yours, but you sure caught a lot of what I think of this situation.

Not a bad idea about taking up some Spanish lessons.

I do tire of hate and righteousness.