Friday, April 27, 2012

Our own immigrant past

This week the Supreme Court heard arguments concerning Arizona’s anti-immigration law known as SB1070.  As many of you know, I have blogged extensively about 20th century immigration policy, economic impact of documented and undocumented workers, and what immigration reform needs to include.  I believe public officials and pundits conflate immigration and trafficking as they conflate border security with police work.  But this post isn’t about the legal arguments or public policy.  Instead, why is it such an emotional subject?  Why are so many Americans angry at undocumented workers and why have so many of us forgotten our own past?

America has a checkered past of xenophobia and intolerance of immigrants.  Anti-Catholic sentiments led to persecution of Catholics, anti-Semitism was prevalent against many Germans and Eastern Europeans, and anti-socialists and anti-labor movements led to the unlawful prosecutions, deportations, and imprisonments of Russian, Italian, and other European immigrants.  Nativism was also a force against Asian immigrants and remains in effect today.  But if we are truly a nation of immigrants why do so many hate or fear those that are new to this country?

Anti-immigrant fervor correlates with tough economic times.  Major recessions in the late 19th century, early 20th century, the Great Depression, the 1950’s, the late 1970’s, and most recently during the Great Recession.  It also spikes during social upheaval, usually tied to great progressive movements associated with the suffragette movement, minority rights, labor movement, free speech, and the recurring nastiness of the culture wars.  It is neither unusual or unexpected that anti-immigrant flames would burn the brightest during tough times or during major change; people like comfort and Conservatives are addicted to status quo and comfort.

I am sure there is a biological reason why some people identify themselves as progressive while others lean towards the conservative mantras.   What I don’t get, again, is how some people can white wash their own past, the cover up the trails their ancestors blazed, and fall in line.  For American Jews in 2012 to support the likes of Kris Kobach, Russell Pearce, and other anti-immigrant zealots is still strange to me considering our own recent immigration history. 

The story of the Hamburg Lines St. Louis, the infamous Voyage of the Damned, where Jews trying to escape persecution in Germany, faced rejection in every port, including the U.S. only to return to Europe where many of the passengers ultimately ended up in the death camps to be systematically exterminated.  Just 73 years ago this sad story took place, a story of an unwanted people, a people that were feared, hated, and disposable.  I am not comparing the plight of undocumented workers from Mexico or Central America to the genocide of European Jews.  What I am trying to get at is how we can lose our humanity, our empathy, or love for fellow man. 

Some will counter that undocumented workers need to be rounded up, jailed, or deported because the broke the law by crossing illegally.  They are so concerned that these members of the community are a threat that they want to use schools, hospitals, and neighbors to report these individuals as criminals.  Yes the rule of law.  So tell me “by the book” Patriots, you have ever ran a red light? Exceeded the speed limit? Augmented a tax deduction or two?   I am not buying.

Separating families is not about being a law-abiding citizen.  Blaming those that cannot defend themselves is not patriotic.  Making up false claims that undocumented workers cause high healthcare costs or are bankrupting the nation is not defending the notion that all men are created equal.  When we deny our own pasts under the veil of being pro-immigration but anti-illegal immigration we are either deluding ourselves or we have lost our humanity.  When we claim to be Christians but see nothing wrong with creating a two class system, we need a dictionary and a Bible.

But there are signs of hope.  The Mormon Church was instrumental in seeing the bigoted Russell Pearce recalled and defeated in Arizona.  The state of Utah is trying to work on a worker visa program that enables a pathway to citizenship.  And while the majority of Americans support Arizona’s SB1070, they draw the line at using teachers and nurses as ICE agents.

 It is a shame that yesteryear’s victims of bigotry have forgotten their own history.

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