News and views from the award-winning author of the Class H Trilogy: AMERICA LIBRE, HOUSE DIVIDED and PANCHO LAND

Friday, October 10, 2008

The immigrant in the mirror

The immigrant men gather on the pavement at dawn and wait passively as the bosses walk among them, choosing those who will work today. For the lucky ones, a ten-to-fourteen-hour day of hard labor lies ahead. Tomorrow, they will show up at dawn again, hoping to find another day of work.

After work, most return to a small apartment crowded with children and relatives. They live among their countrymen, clinging to their traditions and language. Only a few are U.S. citizens. On the street, their thick accents bring stares of scorn from native-born Americans. Yet they work doggedly at the most menial of jobs, hoping their children will not have to endure their fate.

Hispanic immigrants in the barrios of California? No, these events took place in factories and steel yards across the U.S. Midwest at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet the struggles and dreams of those immigrants from five generations ago seem much the same as those of Latino immigrants today.

Ah, but the immigrants of the past were all “legal,” right?

Instead entering the United States by its southern border, most early-twentieth century immigrants crossed the Atlantic crowded aboard steam ships from European nations overflowing with the desperately poor. They landed at ports like Ellis Island and endured a rigorous entry process before they were allowed into the country. For that reason, many people today see the newcomers of the last century as somehow more moral and deserving than today’s “lawless” Latinos. But let’s not confuse geography with morality.

If the poor immigrants from Europe could have simply walked across a land border instead of having to cross an ocean in a ship to find a better life, would they have waited patiently behind an invisible line? We can look to history for the answer.

Beginning with the thirteen original colonies carved out of Native American land, the United States has spread inexorably west. In many cases, this annexation was carried out without any legal treaties. When land was available, American settlers simply overran the territories of other peoples. So much for the “moral superiority” of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Does that make today’s illegal immigration right? Not in my book. But the idea that a land border would have kept out waves of desperately poor Europeans eager for work is pure self-delusion. Europeans do not hold the franchise on morality. Native-born Americans don’t either.

So what’s the answer? A guest worker program would bring today’s undocumented workers out of the shadows. We need their labor. We do not need to call their assimilation “amnesty.” Because in more ways than most of us care to admit, they are already Americans.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez