It’s a sad day indeed when 13 percent of the population has to pretend to disappear, just to be seen.
Thursday was a Day Without Immigrants — an event organized via social media to focus on the 40 million foreign-born people in our midst, of whom about 10 million are undocumented.
For one day, a fraction of the immigrants in the U.S. didn’t show up for work. Many classrooms, too, were empty. Landscaping crews didn’t work, cooks didn’t cook, and servers didn’t serve. Tiendas didn’t open. Even a few McDonald’s restaurants had to close.
Alas, it was but a blip.
The following day, Friday, America’s longstanding cognitive dissonance about immigration was on display. The Associated Press reported on a leaked memo by a source in the Trump administration discussing plans to use National Guard troops to round up undocumented immigrants. The administration immediately branded this a lie and “fake news,” but it sounded like a fine plan to some.
Now is a good time to admit why crackdowns on immigrants sounds good to large portions of America. We cling to a good amount of “truthiness” about our own immigrant pasts.
Americans derive from a remarkable and yet troubling stock. For the most part, we’re a bunch of mutts from elsewhere. This we regularly celebrate in everything from stump speeches to TV commercials. It’s even engraved on a national monument: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses….”
And yet we love to rewrite history — especially family histories — to rationalize why it is OK to view newer arrivals, especially those assumed to be illegally present, as somehow less worthy.
You know the drill. In America, no one past the second generation truly believes that their ancestors arrived struggling to learn English. Nope. We imagine our great-grandparents came here out of a desire to be American rather than in search of higher wages or cheap land or to escape hunger or for a shot at getting rich.
Oh, and they arrived legally. Don’t forget that. That’s the biggest farce. Everyone who never actually met their immigrant ancestor believes that their family tree was thoroughly vetted, checked, and found mentally competent and physically topnotch.
In fact, the level of vetting past immigrants underwent greatly varied depending on when they arrived, where they were coming from and how many coins were in their knapsack. States rather than federal government controlled migration until 1890. And only 2 percent of the migrants who came through Ellis Island were turned away. It’s not because they were all stellar proto-Americans; it’s because they didn’t go through particularly stringent screening. For those who arrived in steerage, it was a six-second physical.
If we hadn’t built such false narratives about the past, we might be more willing to understand how the current political tumult over immigration is but a latter-day re-enactment of nativist outbursts of the past. It turns out we have a long history of favoring immigrants of certain nations, races, and religions over those of others — and of erecting selective barriers to legal passage.
The U.S. can do better. A large portion of the undocumented population could have been prevented not by walls, but by policy and law that actually allowed migration to be flexible with labor needs, be it low-skilled or more highly skilled.
Immigrants are now and have always been a self-selected class. It’s typically not the undisciplined who choose to uproot themselves from native soil and venture off for a new start.
It’s a commonplace to say immigrants built this nation. They settled the prairies and dug the canals and laid the rails and mined the coal and worked in the steel mills and factories and slaughterhouses that made America rich.
They continue to contribute a great deal at all levels of the economy. We can continue to enjoy this benefit, while clearing up the murk that is American immigration policy. Demonizing immigrants is not the way. Cruel police or military action is not the way. Reason, justice, and a clear grasp of our national interest are the values that must guide us.
IMAGE: Ludovic Bertron / Flickr