Thursday, May 04, 2006

Immigration: The Sincerest Form of Flattery…

Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists. --Franklin D. Roosevelt
I happened to be in LA on Monday for the demonstrations—in fact one of my meetings was canceled because it was close to the downtown courthouse (near the demonstrations) and I wouldn't have been able to get through them to make my flight to San Francisco at 5:00 PM in time for my next series of meetings there. The demonstrations have been remarkable. Hundreds of thousands of marched, Expand...peacefully, no major incidents, with American flags, demonstrating a love and yearning for America and what it has traditionally represented that I wish more of those of us born here would show. Hell, we can't even have a St. Patrick's day parade in New York without dozens of arrests and hundreds of fights, but here, hundreds of thousands can demonstrate peacefully, respectfully, and show not only respect, but veneration for traditional American values and the result is a polarizing change ranging from outright bigotry to claptrap about the language in which our national anthem is sung—from the President. I find that both offensive and ironic given that that same President made speaking in Spanish a staple from his podium in his elections campaigns.

The truth is that anti-immigration sentiment has always been little more than a thin veneer, a poor cover, for bigotry and racism. I happen to have a French last name, but my father married an Italian woman, the daughter of immigrants just a generation before, who grew up in the face of bigotry in the 1940s and I identify far more closely with that warm open family. Growing up in the 40s, my mother suffered the prejudices of racism as have most people in this country who can go far back enough in their family history to recall when their families came here in search of a better life and faced down the prejudices and bigotry of those who came before. Growing up, I would occasionally have friends who would make anti-Italian slurs, not recognizing my last name or knowing my mother's, and so I learned of the closeted nature of bigotry. I recall a group of my father's colleagues talking about 'the wops' in the 60s when after a few moments he quietly states, you're talking about me, my wife and my children—goodbye gentlemen: I think you've said quite enough. Today, they're easier to spot.

The bigots are easier to spot because they try to frame the immigration debate. They focus on the word 'illegal' pointing to their own ancestors as if we had never in 1965 passed an immigration act limiting legal immigration to 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western, as if today's immigrants have the same opportunity their ancestors did coming in to Ellis Island, or as if we had never in 1986, passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Latin America by imposing sanctions against employers who them, or in then in 1990 passed the Immigration Act that increased the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States by nearly 40 percent only in 1996 to pass three bills, including the 1996 Immigration Act, that will affected not only immigration control, but also immigrants' rights in the United States today. They act as if the Mexicans today could happily stroll into a modern Ellis Island if they but wished and had the will to come in legally, as if we hadn't changed the rules.

If the US government were really serious about immigration reform it would target the employers, not the workers. News flash: they won't do that. They are won't because politicians recognize there is no advantage here—there are supporters on both sides. They can't realistically deport 11-12 million people and bring the economy screeching to a halt, nor can they deal with the vast web of familial and sympathetic connections to immigrants that would produce a solidified voting base that (as the demonstrations underscore) are a far more serious threat to the Republican majority, perceived as harsher on immigration than the democrats. No, despite Fox news' hopeful ramblings of a backlash, this issue is unwelcome to them, and rightly so—it illuminates far more of the isolationism and lack of charity and plain old fashioned bigotry that exists underneath the patina of the neo-conservative movement, and that is just a scratch below the surface of the appropriation of terms like 'boarder security' and 'minute men' (many of the original of whom—immigrants themselves, are I suspect spinning in their graves at the use of that term!)

That bait and switch—the juxtaposition of 'national security' and boarder control' followed by the attacks on Latin Americans as if somehow Mexicans flew planes into the World Trade Centers, or Al Qaeda and El Conquistador are interchangeable. What nonsense. We have attracted these immigrants because we offer a better life, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating—we need them; they mow our lawns, cook and serve our food, allow us to get to work and they do it at poverty level wages hoping to provide a better life for their families—much as our parents and grandparents did.

It is unsurprising and heartening that in a time when we have strayed so far from our own ideals, that these immigrants embrace them—peaceful demonstrations, love for America and what it represents, willingness to do the hard jobs, and a desire to enrich our nation with their culture and heritage. A translated national anthem is the objection? Are you kidding me? At a time when we abandon tolerance for torture, the rule of law for limbo, watch our own citizens and retreat into fear let them sing it in every language, in every nation.

I'm struck by the fact that our leaders say we want to be a beacon of freedom to the world, the shining lamp of liberty, the city on the hill. Except when it comes to living up to our heritage.

Let them sing it—sing it in Spanish, sing it in Russian, sing it in Darfur and sing it in North Korea. Sing it in Farsi and sing it in every language and every location on the globe and thank God that to some people we still inspire the kind of hope and still represent the values of freedom, integrity, generosity of spirit and justice that we have strayed so far from under our current leadership, and let us pray fervently that the damage of recent years is not irreversible and that there will always be people who yearn to sing the words to The Star Spangled Banner in whatever tongue in whatever place because they share those values that are our true and best selves, because my fear is that we stray further and further from what we used to represent and who we used to be.

We've been down this road before—the road of isolationism, and immigration quotas of persecuting the poor for trying to eek out a living and always we later recognize it doesn't work and we always look back upon such episodes as nation with burning shame.

So, let them rant and let them argue for exclusion and let them drive the politicians to action who blanche in the face of such numbers and peaceful demonstration and organization. The politicians know there's nothing to be won in fighting them. I wonder how long it will take those who would cast this as us versus them to see the same.

The answer is a sane path to citizenship for those here and for those, who like our ancestors before us, come in search of a better life and are committed to working towards that—in every language.

Because immigration really is the sincerest form of flattery—let us pray we are worthy of the compliment and live up to our historic traditions in the future.

Remember that when you say "I will have non of this exile and this stranger for his face is not like my face and his speech is strange," you have denied America with that word. --Stephen Vincent Benet
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