By Daniel Patrick Welch
Those who wish to read US history undistorted, rather than use its mythology for their own ends, are already hip to the never-ending plight of immigrants to "America"'s shores. "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."
Lazarus' famous poem, like its namesake, winds up rising from the dead, or rather, being tediously exhumed by those who wish to resurrect the self-serving image of America's open-armed embrace of those less fortunate. Notwithstanding the hostile receptions that each wave encountered, their only desire was to share in our unearned bounty and work their way toward a piece of the elite pie that is American wealth. Shame on them! How dare they do what our own ancestors did 20, 50, 100, 150 years ago!
But the very topic itself is a deliberate digression, a topic-changing distraction from the true business of the people—any people—facing the enormous issues we face. Unending imperial wars? Gays are getting married! Impending destruction of the ecosphere? Iran is enriching uranium! Those in power in the US are rife with corruption, greed and lies from top to bottom? Mexicans are taking our jobs!
(Im)Migration is as old as evolution itself. Yes, the dreaded E-word. Sorry, right wing lunatics, no safe haven here. It is the nature of multicelled organisms, from the first fish who flopped onto land in search of better feeding, breeding, or investment opportunities, to seek the better life.
George Bush, plumbing the Nixonian depths of unpopularity, would love to incite the racist backlash that propelled Nixon to power before his own criminality forced the American people to rethink their own horrific mistake. It seems gay marriage has not resulted in the implosion of Massachusetts society, much to the chagrin of the Church and its far-right allies. So immigration comes, right on schedule, as the wedge to separate god-fearing, law-abiding white people from their own common sense.
But it has always been the most difficult task of out-and-out racists to finesse their own lurid ideology so as to be palatable to some amorphous "majority" who will dutifully keep them in power. Even Bull Connor didn’t openly embrace the Klan. Every generation of white people in America has its own semantic trick, a sort of racist rabbit-in-the-hat to disguise its morally reprehensible agenda. Genocide? Noooooo. Manifest Destiny! Racism? Nooooo. States’ rights! Racism? Noooooo. Typhoid! Public health and safety! Etc.
And now, the new mantra is legality, or taxes, whatever floats your boat. In some uncharacteristic glint of rationality, Bush wants to seem "fair." The millions of undocumented workers should not be rounded up and sent "back where they came from" (whew!); instead, they should pay some meaningful penalty for daring to pick fruit for fifty cents an hour, back taxes on all the earnings their agribusiness bosses condescended to actually pay them, and learn English. Sounds fair to me! But really, shouldn’t we all examine our own complicity in this affair? I'm not one to point fingers without proof, so I'll confine the fateful lightning of my terrible swift sword to those whom we know to be guilty. Hands up, all who have, say, eaten or purchased fruit in the past six months! Aha! Pay your meaningful penalty and join the line on the left. Anyone get their lawn mowed? Aha! Pay your penance and join the guilty. As for the agribusiness owners of transnational corporations—-well, the simple notion of proportionality might impose incarceration, public caning or humiliation. Sorry, the law’s the law. And if some upper-level management crony of any of these multinationals is more fluent in, say, Dutch than English? Well, suffice it to say that DHS swat teams are available at a moment's notice. Along with a few Berlitz books. Hey, we're not Barbarians!
And speaking of the law, let's engage the new states' rights argument. The great thing about white people, and westerners in general, is that they can be cowed by simple (-minded) references to "The Law," even when they themselves are descendents of the centuries-old abuse of this very same principle. You’re illegal! Follow the LAW! Bark the pit-bulls of the right wing assault on immigration rights. But what is the law, exactly? I remember following the ever-shifting law of immigration when I myself got married (to an immigrant-gasp!). If we got married before date X, Y would happen. If we waited until date Z, AA would happen. Ugh.
This quintessentially racist backlash is running up against more powerful north-south and east-west divides, much to horror of Karl Rove and the corporate oligarchy that would continue to control America. From my own personal perspective, my mother's Irish grandparents were considered white only because of what a German-American friend jokingly calls a "clerical error." Until the end of the Civil War, the pastiest white people on earth, “the pale and blotchy race," in the words of a famous poet, were legally considered non-white. When emancipation threatened to make several southern states "majority non-white," The Law miraculously changed to suit the situation.
In the same way, law has served the interests of imperialism and oligarchy throughout history. I am fond of telling my students that the only reason I speak English is that the powers that invaded the country of my ancestors made it "illegal" for the indigenous people to speak their own Irish language. Presto! Official English is born.
On the recent Dia Sin Inmigrantes, our school participated by erecting signs on our roof saying "We are all immigrants" in English and Spanish. Aside from a total lack of press coverage, we were treated to the invasion of a certain self-appointed corrections specialist, who wandered into the school to tell us that we should change our signs to reflect "legal" immigrants. Oh really? My mother’s grandparents weren’t "legal" as far as my research reveals. And how, exactly, do families separate the "good" from the "bad" immigrants within our own ranks? Contrary to popular myth, the overwhelming majority of "illegal" immigrants did not sneak across the Mexican border. In most cases, they are people who came to study or work, with legitimate visas. Maybe they fell in love and had children (disgusting!) or ran out of money for school. So they stayed, and got jobs under the table, jobs that fuel much of the economy on which we all rely. God forbid they should be treated like human beings.
But speaking of the Mexican border, let's deal with this up front. I had a recent discussion with my own staff, most of whom are immigrants who have "made it," in the sense that they have now gained citizenship and bought houses, etc. Perhaps feeling guilty about their own success, they play Devil's Advocate: "Pero Daniel," they tell me. "I didn’t come here in a banana crate. I came legal. What if someone sneaked into your house at night, without your permission, and started to live there? Wouldn’t that be a crime?" I'm not sure if they are serious, so I take them at their word. "The United States is not a house," I counter. Let's change the analogy. What if, say, instead of a house, you were on a banana plantation, and all those outside the walls were dying of hunger? Wouldn’t you feel differently about someone who dug under the wall and stole a few bananas?"”
My staff, my colleagues, my friends, my fellow Americans, were silent. As devout Catholics, they could not resist the argument, so I (perhaps unfairly) hone in for the kill. Even as new Americans aware as few others of the realities beyond their borders, they are skittish. Did they realize, I ask, that half of the humans on the planet subsist on less than a dollar a day? That two thirds subsist on less than two dollars a day? My Dominican colleague, a devout Catholic herself raised on a coffee farm back home, was incredulous. Yes, I said. Who are "WE?" Is this all something we 'deserve?' The US population consumes almost half the natural resources of the world, yet we represent about 6% of the global population. Is this something we can sustain?
We--who now reside within borders defined by a series of genocidal wars and wield wealth and power gained through enslavement and expropriation—we now feel empowered to close the doors behind us. Ha! Sucks to be you! Get your own country!
Since we had recently been flooded, I used a readily available analogy: the dam. It seemed perfectly logical to me, absent racist claptrap about how white people are more productive, that the threatened dams in the region supplied the perfect metaphor. Given the disparity that exists, might the correct analogy be that the flood engineers are dealing with at this very moment? If the level on one side of the dam is too high, then something must be done to prevent the dam from bursting: If you don't want to eliminate the dam itself, the unequal pressure from both sides forces certain decisions: sluiceways might lower the pressure for the time being; shoring up the infrastructure might keep the water at bay for now. But the pressure is unrelenting—-come hell or high water-—whether we are prepared or not.
Elephants, donkeys, and other animals may not survive the flood. Ostriches bury their heads in the sand, willfully oblivious of what is to come. Democrats and Republicans alike would be wise to choose a different mascot.