Monday, May 01, 2006

Bring Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses

My recent book research has taken me back into the familiar and beloved culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New England: day-long Sunday services and annual town meetings, schooners and clipper ships, towering elms and lilac bushes, and prim Federal houses with their fanlights and balanced facades. The combination of thrift, sobriety, hard work, personal modesty, and reverence for learning sounds austere, but there was also great joy and fun. I was especially tickled by the young ship’s captain who sometimes kept his logbook in verse.

These are my ancestors, and I love them. They went on to envision an ideal of democracy and equality that became a beacon to a world where education, justice, and opportunity had been the privilege of the wealthy and the well-connected. They founded a nation and a constitution that, despite flaws and bigotry, nevertheless became a model to the world.

They were also illegal immigrants. Not only that, they were illegal immigrants who were ignorant of the local language, in dire need of welfare services, and unable to survive without the support and help of the people who were there first. They destroyed the local economy, too. They even spread disease—sometimes by accident, on a few shameful occasions on purpose. Any of these accusations sound familiar?

Think about it: The Pequot Indians, rightful residents of the invaded territories, didn't want them in the first place and did their damnedest to eliminate the pesky immigrants, once they realized how destructive the invasion would be. The Pequots had to give food and job training to the helpless Pilgrims, who would have starved without that social support. Within a generation, the Pequot way of life was smashed.

That’s the other side of New England: the genocide against the natives who so kindly fed the starving Pilgrims and patiently taught the first white settlers how to plant and fertilize corn; the triangular trade in rum/molasses/slaves; the murderous religious persecutions and literal witch hunts where anyone who seemed different was sought out and destroyed; and the relentless, unquestioning self-righteousness that may be their worst legacy to the United States of 2006.

So which side are we on? Do we choose the idealism of the young colonies, the willingness to let everyone regardless of birth have a chance to work their own way with their own two hands? Or do we side with the prejudice and contempt that values inherited wealth and despises some people as three-fifths of a human being? I see our country, where my family has lived for four centuries, becoming more and more divided into the wealthy and the oppressed, where the rich exploit the workers with impunity and where government and corporations join forces to drain cash from the pockets of the hard-working majority.

What immigrants, legal or illegal, ask for is a chance to make a better life for themselves and their children. Like native-born American citizens, they need work, dignity, a chance at an education, and a little help adjusting. The pennies we spend on them will be repaid a millionfold by hard-working, loyal people. Unlike the vast sums we disburse to Halliburton and Enron, where billions sink without a trace into the pockets of corrupt and powerful rich men.

Maybe we need an infusion of people who still remember the ideals of America. Our current Administration certainly does not. Crowning a lifetime of incompetence cushioned by wealth and privilege, George W. Bush is now bent on gutting the Constitution he swore to uphold by claiming the president does not need to obey the laws. Who is the greater threat to the peace and security of the United States: a hard-working illegal immigrant picking lettuce to make ends meet, or a loose-cannon rich boy in the Oval Office with delusions that God put him there to enrich the wealthy, torture prisoners, trash the checks and balances of the three branches of government, and invade foreign countries?

I know which one scares me.

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