That’s what I keep thinking as Americans fight the Washington establishment (the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, their big contributors) on immigration. Go deeper. Look at the real emotions driving the struggle as opposed to what politicians and the media claim are “the high emotions surrounding this issue.”
You know what I think is the American mood right now on immigration? Anti-immigration and for the immigrant. Against the abstract and for the particular.
We’re against gushing borders and illegal immigration, which is at this point even souring the general mood on legal immigration, because we don’t trust our bureaucrats to let in the people America needs. We don’t trust our bureaucrats and leaders to care a lot about America. (We assume that when senators are together, if someone says, “But what about America?” everyone laughs, and then the top senator says, dryly, “Your concern is duly noted. Next.”)
But that’s the abstract, “immigration.” In the particular—the immigrants we see and work with and know—we’re for them.
We’re asking for closed borders and pulling for newcomers.
And this isn’t ambivalence, and it isn’t confusion. It’s common sense plus humanity.
The White House is exploiting American alarm at uncontrolled borders to get its way. This of course has added to the sense of national alarm. They believe the alarm works for them: If you don’t pass our bill we’ll never control your borders—yes, “your”—and you’ll suffer! In the general air of agitation, anger festers. People feel powerless. Rage follows, and in this case I believe deep fissures will follow that.
What gets lost in the alarm, and will get lost in the fissures, is the old affection the whole country felt, and still feels, for its newcomers. Not shallow sentiment or softness but something more constitutional, more civic.
As in: I’m in Mass, or in the deli down the street, or the bathroom of a restaurant, and I see a Hispanic woman, obviously hardworking, obviously so far not lucky, not yet. This is what I think: Hi, Grandma. My grandmother was a bathroom attendant on the fifth floor of the A&S department store in downtown Brooklyn. She was an immigrant from Ireland.
When I see new Americans, I think I’m seeing her. And I am not alone. And I know what we feel, and it is not antagonism. It is some kind of old civic love, some kind of connection that echoes back, that doesn’t quite have a name but is part of who we are.
* * *
In New York last weekend we had the Puerto Rican Day Parade. I walked from midtown to uptown in the throngs. Babies, strollers, mommies, people dressed in red, white and blue. Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States, but some of the people around me were new arrivals. On 86th Street, at the end of the parade, I saw a teenage girl in a silver-white gown. She’d just gotten off a float and was sitting on the curb. She looked like a Miss Universe contestant—brown skin, big eyes, beautiful. She looked like she wants to be Jennifer Lopez. This is a very American thing to want to be. Near her there was another girl in a gown. She was shorter, thicker, and had a tattoo on her arm of the American flag. I thought: She’ll be a Marine some day.
Some things were not good, not at all. A young man hurled an obscene epithet. He was that angry I wasn’t Latin, and he felt I should know. Another young man deliberately frightened a shopkeeper on Madison Avenue. When he walked by the store, he put out his arm as if he had a gun in his hand, aiming it at her. I was behind him. I looked at the woman as she flinched, and our eyes locked: This is bad.
We’re going to have to work on that young man, on both of them.
But we always have to work on young men, don’t we?
* * *
Lately in the immigration debate we have been discussing and debating statistics on such things as family breakdown, education levels, and criminality among Hispanic newcomers. This reminds me of a number of things, some of them perhaps to this day delicate. One is that among the immigrant Irish of the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were fairly high levels of dysfunction, family neglect, alcoholism. As for criminality, they didn’t call it the paddy wagon for nothing. My tribe was an obstreperous one. Many tribes are, at least the interesting ones. People are human and human is messy.
Another thought is that statistical breakdowns on our ethnic groups, Bell Curves and Reports on Out of Wedlock Birthrates, are not in themselves necessarily wrong, but there’s something rather rude about them. That is perhaps a sissy thing to say, but what I mean is this: If you have a mother and a father with a big family of kids it would be rude—and unhelpful, and not conducive to promoting peace—for the grown-ups to sit around the table at night and say to their children, “Joey, you’re the smart one,” and “Elizabeth is dumber and yet dogged,” and “Bobby here is our promiscuous one.” How exactly would that help? It’s not even “realistic”: Today’s reality can change. An academic might say, “I’m not their father.” Fair enough, but you’re a grown-up, and if you’re a grown-up, you’re in charge of America right now.
* * *
A little love would go a long way right now. We should stop putting newcomers in constant jeopardy by blithely importing ever-newer immigrants who’ll work for ever lower wages. The ones here will never get a sure foot on the next rung that way.
We should close the border, pause, absorb what we have, and set ourselves to “patriating” the newcomers who are here. The young of AmeriCorps might help teach them English. Those reaching retirement age, who happen to be the last people in America who were taught and know American history, could help them learn the story of our country. We could, as a nation, set our minds to this.
We shouldn’t be disheartened. So much good could be done once a Great Pause begins, once the alarm is abated.
What will we do about the 12 million here? Nothing radical. We’re not really a radical people, Americans.
Having no borders—that’s radical.
Saying, to the American people, in essence, Back my big bill or I will not close the borders, is radical.
Insisting on “all or nothing at all” is radical.
Leaving your country wide open in the age of terror is radical.
But America isn’t radical. If its leaders only knew! Our leaders are in need not only of wisdom but of faith. And, as always, love, as opposed to mere sentiment, and vanity, and pride.