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Your huddled masses yearning to breath free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Emma Lazarus: “The New Colossus”

Engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty

In the 1947 musical “Finian’s Rainbow” the bigoted Southern senator Billboard Rawkins is trying to buy up the entire valley in order to sell it at an inflated price. One of his henchmen informs him that someone is now living there.  The senator asks who it is and gets the answer: “Immigrants.” He then exclaims, “Immigrants! Damn!  My whole family has been bothered by immigrants ever since we came to this country.”

In the senator’s angry reply, we have a condensation of at least one part of the immigration puzzle that is currently being debated in our country. (Perhaps, “screamed” would be a better verb than “debated,” as debate implies some degree of rationality.) 

Sometimes it appears that the longer one is in this greatest of all lands, the shorter his or her memory becomes about the ancestors who came here from so many different places. Even those with pedigrees that go back hundreds of years forget, or ignore, that a good number of those who came here in the 1600s and 1700s were “indentured servants,” fugitives from debtors prisons, or other forms of jailbirds (bad word, even if accurate). Supposedly the Mayflower carried a total of forty passengers, but today the descendants far outnumber the mathematical possibilities for four centuries of descendants.

Some think they know, of course, that immigrants often wear strange clothing, eat even stranger foods, are, by definition, morally inferior to the rest of us, tend toward criminal activity, and have carloads of children. When those charges are leveled in the 21st Century, they usually refer to—and let’s get it out in the open—Hispanics from Central and South America, as well as some Asians.  In past years those exact same charges we aimed at Italians, Poles and Greeks in the early 20th Century; at Asians in the late 19th; at Irish and Germans in the mid-19th, and even at the French before that.  Jews, of course, were chosen to receive these charges from 1650 until—let’s see, what day is it?  Oh, yes, today!

Mormons, who originally came from all over Europe, joined the Native Americans in a program especially designed for them: extermination. (Years later this became referred to by others as a “final solution”). AfricanAmericans or Blacks or Negroes usually do not have these charges leveled at them, because they could hardly be called “immigrants,” a term which implies at least a modicum of acquiescence.

The most emphatic cries relate to immigrants who are UNDOCUMENTED. That word has replaced the less politically-correct word “illegal” in the tirades.  “Illegal” was preceded by the even uglier term “Wetbacks” during the insensitive 1950s.  And some still use the term “Mexicans,” regardless of national origins. 

I have not done any deep research or study to support my supposition, but it seems to me that most of the people who speak the loudest about modern immigrants have last names that indicate Northern European origin.  Their comments often imply and sometimes even announce with pride that their ancestors came to America properly and with DOCUMENTS.  When their ancestors were still in Europe, they often had to have these DOCUMENTS to travel between villages and districts within their own countries. When traveling between countries, proper DOCUMENTS were not only a vital necessity, often they were a matter of life or death—at least, incarceration. (Italian immigrants got the ugly, disrespectful name of “Wop” because some were With Out Papers.)

My maternal grandparents came to America about 1905. Did their journey to freedom require papers in good order?  No question!  They left what is now Lithuania, but was then part of Czarist Russia, and needed to transverse Poland.  From Poland it was on to Germany; from Germany they needed to travel to either Belgium or The Netherlands. Perhaps, I really do not know, they may have had to crossover to England. Either way, they then suddenly encountered a rather large problem: a little wet spot called the Atlantic Ocean. For those who may not be aware of that “little wet spot,” let’s just say it ain’t a dry river bed.   (How many anti-immigration people remember how difficult it was for the survivors of the “Titanic” to wade across that ocean, even though Leonardo and Kate were halfway across the Atlantic before the trouble started?)

 When we throw in the complications that my grandparents had: my infant mother, and her siblings were Jewish—a group loved, admired, and persecuted beyond anything we can imagine by the Russian government and people, by the Polish government and people, and by the German government and people–we see that they damn well better have had complete, correct, and impeccable DOCUMENTS.

If someone should be wondering about my paternal grandparents’ immigration, so do I. My father was born in England, but his parents were from Germany and Poland—I do not know which was which. 

Are there some criminal elements in the immigrant community? Darn tootin’! Guess what! There are also criminal elements in families that have been here for generations. We can, of course, send any criminals back to their native countries. Then Reno and Las Vegas can start giving odds on how long it will be before a given baddie crosses the border again. 

We are “A Nation of Immigrants,” some with pedigrees, some with rap sheets. Perhaps we will see the day when the Daughters and Sons of the Revolution, the Civil War, or any other historical event will pick lettuce in the Central Valley. Perhaps someday they will bus tables and do the vital, if not glamorous, menial labor so necessary to our culture’s existence. Perhaps! But I, for one, would not bet on it.

There are many valid issues relating to immigration, and these issues need to be discussed and resolved as rationally and unemotionally as possible.  Unfortunately, such discussions and actions need to happen in Congress, and we all know how much that body accomplishes. Like most of our “insoluble” problems, this too will be solved given sufficient time and leadership.   Meanwhile, when it comes to breaking up families with children who are American citizens by birth, perhaps our leaders could show just a drop or two of common sense. Yeah! Sure! 

Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(But make sure their DOCUMENTS are in order.)

Let’s put UNITY back in commUNITY






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