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There Was a Time When Strangers Were Welcome Here July 12, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Current Events, Immigration, Politics.
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I just finished reading Cradle of Gold by Christopher Heaney. It’s an excellent book about Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of Machu Piccu, but when reading it I couldn’t help but notice some disturbing parallels to some of the issues of today. One of the major themes running through the book was the Peruvians’ fear of losing their heritage, of having important relics from their past stored and studied on foreign soil. The book also showed the devastation to a country as a result of illegal immigration– the Spanish explorers were illegal immigrants if ever there were any. They were there to grab land and territory and souls for their god, decimating a thriving civilization and stomping out the religious beliefs and practices of the natives.

Similar stories were carried out all over the American continent as European explorers overran it in their drive to capture territory and glory for their crown and souls for their god. And ultimately that is what a lot of the debate about illegal immigration is about. People are afraid that the immigrants will take what is rightfully theirs as American citizens– their jobs, their schools, their public services– and overrun their culture. When people hear others speaking Spanish or see schools offering bilingual education programs or see job ads requesting bilingual applicants, it plays into those fears– they are afraid that their way of life is threatened, that the job they want will go to an immigrant who speaks the language, that the quality of their children’s education will be affected by the need to provide special services for the children of immigrants, legal and illegal.

Some of these fears are rational, some aren’t, but rational or not, the perception is there. History does not favor the occupants of lands in battles between immigrants and “natives.” The underlying fear in the illegal immigration issue is that like the American Indians, American citizens will be driven from their homes, marginalized in society, forced to learn a new language, adopt new customs and celebrate new holidays. It is a fear that our current way of life will change, and not for the better.

When people are afraid, they adopt drastic measures. Hence the demands for a physical border wall, the passage of local anti-illegal immigration laws and the Arizona law. Supporters of these measures think that those of us who oppose them are condoning illegal immigration, when actually we are concerned about trampling on the rights of US citizens in our attempts to restrict illegal immigrants. When we say we are opposed to demanding that people who are pulled over in the course of a legitimate stop have to provide verification of their legitimacy, we aren’t saying, “Don’t enforce immigration laws.” We are saying that we are concerned about the potential for abuse in such a measure. We are saying that we don’t see how this can be done without profiling. We are remembering other societies where people could be arrested and thrown in prison for not carrying their ID and saying that in our free society, this is not an acceptable means of enforcement.

When we say we support a Guest Worker program, we are not saying we want illegal immigrants to come in and take our jobs. We are saying that we want to open an avenue for people to come into the country to take the jobs that Americans won’t do.  When we say that we don’t want people arrested for being illegal immigrants we are not saying we condone illegal behavior. We are saying that there are different penalties for illegal behavior and that putting people in jail for trying to support their families smacks too much of the debtors’ prisons and workhouses of yesteryear.

Actions taken out of fear are seldom effective. When considering the immigration issue, we need to look at what’s working and what isn’t. My regular readers will know that I am no big fan of George Dubya Bush, however one of the few things I agreed with him about was immigration. Bush enacted several anti-illegal immigration measures over the protests of his Republican base, and many of these measures have proven to be effective. People may oppose illegal immigrants, but there are lots of employers out there who hire them because they will work for less money than Americans. Historically, fines levied against these employers have amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. Under Bush, businesses were raided and illegal immigrants found on the premise were arrested. Obama’s administration has taken this a step further by auditing thousands of business, imposing fines against those who employ illegal workers and forcing them to fire every suspected illegal worker on the payroll. The state of South Carolina is already seeing strong results from a similar policy enacted last year. Bush also sent 6000 troops to the border to improve security in a move that law enforcement circles credited with improved border security, although critics felt that the troops were not given enough authority to enforce laws since they were sent there only in a support role.

In tackling the problem of illegal immigration, let’s avoid the knee jerk solutions that talk tough and sound good, but that raise concerns of constitutional abuses, profiling and authoritarian regimes. Let’s look at what works and attack the causes of illegal immigration. Above all, let’s remember that we are a nation of immigrants and unless we have Native American blood in our background, our ancestors were seen as illegal immigrants by the people who were here first. Immigrants have come to America for all kinds of reasons, but it is hard for me to be overly harsh with people who come here looking for a better life for their families.