Why do people want to come here? Same reasons as a hundred years ago. For a job. For opportunity. To rise. To be in a place where one generation you can be a bathroom attendant at a Brooklyn store and the next your boy can be the star of “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” with everyone in the neighborhood listening on the radio, or, today, “American Idol,” with everyone watching and a million-dollar contract in the wings. To be in a place of weird magic where the lightning strikes. Boom: You got the job in the restaurant. Crack: Now you’re the manager. Boom: You’ve got a mortgage, you have a home.
“Never confuse movement with action,” said Ernest Hemingway. But America gives you both. What an awake place. And what a tortured and self-torturing one. Your own family will be embarrassed by you if you don’t rise, if you fall, if you fail. And the country itself is never perfect enough for its countrymen; we’re on a constant Puritan self-healing mission, a constant search-and destroy-mission for our nation’s blemishes—racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, out damn spots.
I asked myself a question this week and realized the answer is “Only one.” The question is: Have I ever known an immigrant to America who’s lazy? I have lived on the East Coast all my life, mostly in New York, and immigrants both legal and illegal have been and are part of my daily life, from my childhood when they surrounded me to an adulthood in which they, well, surround me. And the only lazy one I knew was a young woman, 20, European, not mature enough to be fully herself, who actually wanted to be a good worker but found nightlife too alluring and hangovers too debilitating.
But she was the only one. And I think she went home.
Everyone else who comes here works hard, grindingly hard, and I admire them. But it’s more than that, I love them and I’m rooting for them. When I see them in church (it is Filipino women who taught me the right posture for prayer; Central Americans helped teach me the Bible) I want to kiss their hands. I want to say, “Thank you.” They have enriched my life, and our country’s.
Naturally I hope the new immigration bill fails. It is less a bill than a big dirty ball of mischief, malfeasance and mendacity, with a touch of class malice, and it’s being pushed by a White House that is at once cynical and inept. The bill’s Capitol Hill supporters have a great vain popinjay’s pride in their own higher compassion. They are inclusive and you’re not, you cur, you gun-totin’ truckdriver’s-hat-wearin’ yahoo. It’s all so complex, and you’d understand this if you weren’t sort of dumb.
But it’s not so complex. The past quarter-century an unprecedented wave of illegal immigrants has crossed our borders. The flood is so great that no one—no one—can see or fully imagine all the many implications, all the country-changing facts of it. No one knows exactly what uncontrolled immigration is doing and will do to our country.
So what should we do?
* * *
We should stop, slow down and absorb. We should sit and settle. We should do what you do after eating an eight-course meal. We should digest what we’ve eaten.
We should close our borders. We should do whatever it takes to close them tight and solid. Will that take the Army? Then send the Army. Does it mean building a wall? Then build a wall, but the wall must have doors, which can be opened a little or a lot down the road once we know where we are. Should all legal immigration stop? No. We should make a list of what our nation needs, such as engineers and nurses, and then admit a lot of engineers and nurses. We should take in what we need to survive and flourish.
As we end illegal immigration, we should set ourselves to the Americanization of the immigrants we have. They haven’t only joined a place of riches, it’s a place of meaning. We must teach them what it is they’ve joined and why it is good and what is expected of them and what is owed. We stopped Americanizing ourselves 40 years ago. We’ve got to start telling the story of our country again.
As to the eight or 10 or 12 or 14 million illegals who are here—how interesting that our government doesn’t know the number—we should do nothing dramatic or fraught or unlike us. We should debate what to do, at length. Debate isn’t bad. There’s a lot to say. We can all join in. We should do nothing extreme, only things that are commonsensical.
Here is the truth: America has never deported millions of people, and America will never deport millions of people. It’s not what we do. It’s not who we are. It’s not who we want to be. The American people would never accept evening news pictures of sobbing immigrants being torn from their homes and put on a bus. We wouldn’t accept it because we have hearts, and as much as we try to see history in the abstract, we know history comes down to the particular, to the sobbing child in the bus. We don’t round up and remove. Nor should we, tomorrow, on one of our whims, grant full legal status and a Cadillac car. We take it a day at a time. We wait and see what’s happening. We do the small discrete things a nation can do to make the overall situation better. For instance: “You commit a violent crime? You are so out of here.” And, “Here, let me help you learn English.”
* * *
Let’s take time and find out if the immigrants who are here see their wages click up and new benefits kick in as the endless pool stops expanding. It would be good to see them gain. Let’s find out if it’s true that Americans won’t stoop to any of the jobs illegals do. I don’t think it is. Years ago I worked in a florist shop removing the thorns from roses. It was painful work and I was happy to do it, and I am very American. I was a badly paid waitress in the Holiday Inn on Route 3 in New Jersey.
The young will do a great deal, and not only the young. The dislike for Americans evinced by the Americans-won’t-do-hard-work crowd is, simply, astonishing, and shameful. It says more about the soft and ignorant lives they lived in Kennebunkport and Greenwich than it does about the American people.
Digest, absorb, teach. Settle in, settle down, protect our country.
Happy Memorial Day.