As Congress considers the Bush administration’s guest-worker plan, as Republicans try to figure out what their immigration philosophy is, and as political observers parse the implications of yesterday’s California House race, here are some small and human questions on immigration to the United States.
I recently found out through one of her daughters that my grandmother spent her first night in America on a park bench in downtown Manhattan. She had made her way from Ireland to Ellis Island, and a cousin was to meet the ship. It was about 1920. The cousin didn’t show. So Mary Dorian, age roughly 20, all alone, with no connections and no relatives interested enough to remember her arrival in the new world, spent her first night in America alone on a bench, in the dark, in a strange country. Later she found her way to Brooklyn and became a bathroom attendant at the big Abraham & Straus department store on Fulton Street. (It’s now a Macy’s. I buy Christmas gifts there.)
Two generations after my grandmother arrived, I was in the Oval Office of the American president saying, “I think you oughta.” And amazingly enough he was listening.
In two generations. Two.
What a country.
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Am I proud of this? Sure. It’s the American way to point out that your people went from zero to 60, or will, or can. It’s the American way to acknowledge, too, that someone made the car you jumped into. There was an assembly line. My grandparents were ahead of me in that line, and the Founders were ahead of them.
Every time an American brags about where he came from and where he wound up, he’s really complimenting the guys on the line.
In my case before there was the car there was a ship. I do not know the name of the ship that took Mary Dorian to America, and yet it gave me my future. I know she wore an inspection card attached to her clothing. I have such a card, encased in plastic, on a table in my home. It is the card worn by Mary Dorian’s future husband’s sister, who came over at the same time.
It says at the top, “To assist Inspection in New York Harbour.” It notes dates, departure points, “Name of Immigrant.” On the side there’s a row of numbers that mark each day of what appears to have been a 10-day trip. Each day was stamped by the ship’s surgeon at daily inspection. You got the stamp if you appeared to be free of disease.
You know how the card looks? Thin. An old piece of paper that looks vulnerable. I guess that’s why I encased it in plastic, to keep it safe, because it’s precious.
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Here is what is true of my immigrants and of the immigrants of America’s past:
They fought for citizenship. They earned it. They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come. They got money that was hard-earned and bought a ticket. They had to get through Ellis Island or the port of Boston or Philadelphia, get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge, and get the nod to take their first step on American soil. Then they had to find the A&S.
They knew citizenship was not something cheaply held but something bestowed by a great nation.
Did the fact that they had to earn it make joining America even more precious?
Yes. Of course.
We all know it is so often so different now. Perhaps a million illegal immigrants come into the United States each year, joining the 10 million or 20 million already here—nobody seems to know the number. Our borders are less borders than lines you cross if you want to. When you watch videotape of some of the illegal border crossings on a show like Lou Dobbs’s—who is not a senator or congressman but a media star and probably the premier anti-illegal-immigration voice in the country—what you absorb is a sense of anarchy, an utter collapse of authority.
It’s not good. It does not bode well.
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The questions I bring to the subject are not about the flow of capital, the imminence of globalism, or the implications of uncontrolled immigration on the size and cost of the welfare state. They just have to do with what it is to be human.
What does it mean that your first act on entering a country—your first act on that soil—is the breaking of that country’s laws? What does it suggest to you when that country does nothing about your lawbreaking because it cannot, or chooses not to? What does that tell you? Will that make you a better future citizen, or worse? More respecting of the rule of law in your new home, or less?
If you assume or come to believe that that nation will not enforce its own laws for reasons that are essentially cynical, that have to do with the needs of big business or the needs of politicians, will that assumption or belief make you more or less likely to be moved by that country, proud of that country, eager to ally yourself with it emotionally, psychologically and spiritually?
When you don’t earn something or suffer to get it, do you value it less highly? If you value it less highly, will you bother to know it, understand it, study it? Will you bother truly to become part of it? When you are allowed to join a nation for free, as it were, and without the commitment of years of above-board effort, do you experience your joining that country as a blessing or as a successful con? If the latter, what was the first lesson America taught you?
These are questions that I think are behind a lot of the more passionate opposition to illegal immigration.
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There are people who want to return to the old ways and rescue some of the old attitudes. There are groups that seek to restore border integrity. But they are denigrated by many, even the president, who has called them vigilantes. The New Yorker this week carries a mildly snotty piece by a writer named Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in which he interviews members of a group of would-be Minutemen who seek to watch the borders with Mexico and Canada. They are “running freelance patrols”; they are xenophobic; they dismiss critics as “communists” and “child molesters.”
How nice to be patronized by young men whose place is so secure they have two last names. How nice to be looked down on for caring.
And they do care, that’s the thing. And pay a price for caring. They worry in part that what is happening on our borders can damage our country by eroding the sense of won citizenship that leads to the mutual investment and mutual respect—the togetherness, if that isn’t too corny—that all nations need to operate in the world, and that our nation will especially need in the coming world.
This is what I fear about our elites in government and media, who will decide our immigration policy. It is that they will ignore the human questions and focus instead, as they have in the past, only on economic questions (we need the workers) and political ones (we need the Latino vote). They think that’s the big picture. It’s not. What goes on in the human heart is the big picture.
Again: What does it mean when your first act is to break the laws of your new country? What does it mean when you know you are implicitly supported in lawbreaking by that nation’s ruling elite? What does it mean when you know your new country doesn’t even enforce its own laws? What does it mean when you don’t even have to become an American once you join America?
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Our elites are lucky people. They were born in a suburb, went to Yale, and run the world from a desk. Which means this great question, immigration, is going to be decided by people who don’t know what it is to sleep on a bench. Who don’t know what it is to earn your space, your place. Who don’t know what it is to grieve the old country and embrace the new country. Who don’t know what it is to feel you’re a little on the outside and have to earn your way in to the inside. Who think it was without a cost, because it was without cost for them.
The problem with our elites as they make our immigration policy is not that they have compassion and open-mindedness. It is that they are unknowing and empty-headed. They don’t know, most of them, what others had to earn, and how much they, and their descendents, prize it and want to protect it.