I give up: Exactly how far back does anybody want to reach for a reference in setting the parameters of our immigration policy?
Apparently the element that was most divisive in the immigration bill buried in the Senate last Thursday was amnesty and subsequent legalization for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States. If what’s behind resistance to that action is some argument involving exactly what determines or establishes an American citizen, then at some point we may have to choose some defining precedent.
Which period in American history do we want to pull out as the model for what we’re pursuing now? Both sides are good at appropriating nostalgic glimpses into our past and then weaving them into a kind of logic for arguments going both ways. But that’s not the same as saying, “Here’s how we do it, because this is how we’ve always done it.” What chapter in America’s past should provide proper guidance?
Do we want to go back to 1960, when reporter Edward R. Murrow produced Harvest of Shame, depicting the grim conditions that plagued migrant farm workers? Murrow’s broadcast of Harvest on Thanksgiving night shocked the country and brought a call for legislation to protect the workers whose labor put food on our tables.
If we use the Ellis Island period, we’ll have to include all the factors contributing to that flow of immigrants into the country. Front and center would be the opportunities that era provided for newly arriving immigrants to work like dogs for low wages without the protection of unions in the horrible and often dangerous conditions created by industrialization and the new machineries of manufacturing. Child labor was a reality then. And Upton Sinclair might have put you off meat. Much as we’ve crafted films and literature that represent the hope and promise of that time, we may not want to borrow too heavily from those days in wrestling with our current dilemma.
If only we could ask Lakota Chief Crazy Horse. Imagine for a moment that instead of there being a genocide of the native people of this land, the natives had been as successful in defeating the pillaging forces of real estate theft in the 1800’s as Crazy Horse was at Little Big Horn. Would America’s native residents have then found themselves in need of an “immigration policy” regarding the remaining white settlers?
History is selectively ignored on what we might call a “need-to-forget” basis. Opponents of the immigration bill viewed its defeat as some event of America being heard. But even before you know the politics of those voices being “heard,” you know that they’re clearly coming from the moment, from the right now. If we could instead listen to the voices of our past, we might take a wider and more accurate view of how we got here… and then be more humane and generous now in our vision for all the people of this country.
My father’s mother cleaned other people’s houses and apartments, often on her knees, so that my father and his brother could have clothes for school. At school, my uncle joined the ROTC program for one simple reason: They would give him a second pair of shoes. My mother’s parents taught school. Her father fought overseas in World War II. After the war they bought a farm and worked to make it go. Far from being maudlin “when I was your age” lessons, these stories have become increasingly valuable to me over time for their power to frame my own sense of place.
Those stories are, indeed, from another time. But they are from this place of America. I have no difficulty whatsoever hearing the voices of those stories right alongside the voices of immigrants today. Both are never out of range of hearing because, despite the occasional setback, they are always moving forward.