Saturday, January 9, 2010

STRANGERS IN THE LAND OF EGYPT

“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’s sonnet inscribed on The Statue of Liberty, ends with a sestet spoken by Lady Liberty:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “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!”

Among the first immigrants were a few men and women of noble, or at least gentle, birth; and, among later immigrants, few men and women of breeding. But not most. Most voluntary immigrants were, for whatever reason, social failures and misfits, outcasts, losers, ne’er-do-wells, and criminals. Are we proud of ourselves yet?

I think not. Only so long as we think of the Puritans elders in the north, the Royalist plantation owners in the south, and their descendants, our Founding Fathers (and their wives), can we think of most immigrants as amounting to anything. With the exception of a few educated immigrants evicted from their countries because of politics or religion—I think mainly of German Jews in the 1850s and the 1930s—most were no-account.

(Lady Liberty did not summon the involuntary immigrants; we called them “slaves.” Some people still do not think that they belong here. Isn’t Obama from Kenya?)

Whatever we have made of ourselves, we have come from humble stock. And as we have made something of ourselves or at least acquired seniority, we have scorned later arrivals. These new nobodies reminded us of who we had been—poor, uneducated, and, at best, semi-skilled. We should be able to do better. We are instructed to do better: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” So we should respect more recent arrivals who, like our progenitors, were desperate enough to risk rough seas or tough lands to come to America, and who got jobs, learned English in a generation or two, and became citizens.

A few years ago, I was driving Interstate 10 in southern Arizona. In hot, arid, hilly, and rocky land—formidable for hundreds of miles to the south—I exited for lunch and gas in a tiny town consisting of a Subway’s and a Shell station. Standing in line ahead of two Border Patrolmen, I initiated a chat about their work. They were friendly enough and not at all defensive about it. I was surprised when they asked me what I thought about illegal immigrants. My answer was not some high-falutin’ one, but a down-to-earth-like-the-earth-right-outside, one. I paraphrase what I said in less time than it takes to read.

Look at the country which they cross to get here. Anyone willing to risk life and limb, and the lives and limbs of family, to make that passage must really want to be here. We should welcome them and help them become the good Americans which they can be and have the commitment to be if welcomed and helped. Hunting them down and returning them to Mexico too often means having to do so again and again, for they seldom give up. (Do you like your work so much that you like doing it over and over again?) And failing to catch them but treating them as criminals means forcing them to live in sub-standard housing, earn sub-standard wages in menial jobs, forego basic medical services, and avoid public schools. We make it harder for all of them to become the Americans which we complain that they are slow to become, but we make it easier for their youth to join gangs and become criminals. (Do you like enforcing the law which creates criminals for INS and others to hunt, harass, and arrest?) I think that they are smart to come here, and we are stupid not to greet these strangers at the gate.

Their response flabbergasted me. They looked at each other, then at me; and then smiled. Then they agreed that I had a point because the work frustrated everyone they knew in the BP or INS. I did not explore the nature of their or others’ frustration. I have no doubt that agents are united in doing a duty defined by law, but divided about the merits—political, economic, and moral—of that duty. The rest of us certainly are.

As yesterday’s immigration reflected ordinary peoples’ responses to conditions elsewhere, so, too, today’s immigration. Our response to this social issue has been, as our response to many another social issue—abortion, alcohol, death penalty, drugs, homosexuality, marijuana, pornography, prostitution—too often is, a legal one; we criminalize and punish behavior instead of coping with it constructively and charitably. The reason is a simple one: we are not secure in our identity as a people—the Melting Pot turns out to be a Stew Pot—and are afraid of those whom we regard, and apparently need to regard, as “them.”

I hope that we can do better by remembering where we came from and why, and extending a helping hand. My two Border Patrolmen give me some hope that, even just a little bit north of South of the Border, we can overcome xenophobia and racism against Hispanic immigrants.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

2 comments:

  1. All immigration happens within a particular historical, economic, demographic, and social context. Prior immigrants faced opportunities and problems different from those faced by today's immigrants. To simply cite historical situations and results is inadequate to assess present-day or future immigration policy. Several issues are important:

    - The absolute number and distribution of the population
    - The number and types of jobs available, and the skills required
    - The willingness and ability of immigrants to assimilate
    - The existence, extent, and eligibility of social welfare programs, including cost
    - Security concerns

    I submit that the characterization of these factors were dramatically different in the 1600's; in the 1860's; in the 1920's; and now. Immigration policy - as all policy - should be informed by history but evaluated in the current context.

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  2. You are right. And those issues can be addressed constructively, not restrictively, as currently motivated by racism and xenophobia.

    ReplyDelete