I sit in Arizona at Christmas, finishing Dennis Lehane’s novel “The Given Day”. Set in 1919 in Boston and culminating in the landmark Boston police strike of that year, Lehane documents the “red scare” of that period, accompanied by the real number and strength of “reds”, the overt racism of the period along with the early days of the NAACP, the early days of the labor movement, the early days of John E. Hoover and the BI (later, of course, J. Edgar and the FBI), all set to a backdrop of the mid-career of Babe Ruth and the Red Sox (and his ultimate move to the New York Yankees). But from here, in Tucson, what seems most relevant today is that it documents the massive immigration (at that time in Boston mostly of Italians, Russians, and Jews) and anti-immigrant sentiment that accompanied it. So our current anti-immigrant furor is nothing new. It has deep roots, and is now, as it always has been, misguided.
Of course, American anti-immigrant movements go back much farther than 1919. Before the Russians, Italians, and Jews of the late 19th and early 20th century. Before even the Irish immigration, the xenophobic reaction to which was dramatically shown in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film “The Gangs of New York”. Before the Germans, back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the John Adams administration at the end of the 18th century, and probably before that. Every group of European immigrants I have mentioned and more, Asians from China, Japan and the Philippines, and many others, have been vilified in their time. Each has been attacked by those already here, and ready to raise the drawbridge behind them. And they have made America great.
They come to America to escape grinding poverty or to maximize their opportunity. Most are poor, but some are doctors and engineers who believe they can do even better here than in, say India or Africa. (This is another issue, of brain drain, which I have touched on in earlier posts). Every time there are those “nativists” (some not here long themselves) who want to close the door, who worry that “they” will take “our” jobs. In Lehane’s book immigrants are leaders of the unions (as well as the radical revolutionary groups); immigrants have always mainly been workers. And is it different now, as the main focus of anti-immigrant wrath are those from Mexico? The wrath is centered here in Arizona (although, it should be noted, the sentiment is not uniform; although only symbolic, the Tucson City Council voted to oppose the state anti-immigrant law), and felt not only in the Southwest but all over the country. Does it make a difference that so many Mexican immigrants are “illegal”? Many of our citizens have been illegal. The major secondary characters in “The Given Day”, two older policemen who enforce “order” for the “Big Money” folks, came to the US from Ireland as teens, stowing away on a ship, and literally escaping into the streets of Boston, before later joining the force. Illegals, certainly, who believed themselves to be more "American" than the current generation of immigrants. And fictional, but representative of many real-life characters. Many “illegals” became citizens after serving in our armed forces, especially in World War II, when “we” needed “them”. Of course, America always needs “them”, to build our cities, our railroads, or industries; to be our engineers and storekeepers and cops and firemen and packing-house workers. We are “them”.
And we remain them, and they us, with only few exceptions. American Indians, whose “immigration” may have been in pre-history, and African-Americans, brought here in bondage, arguably the two most oppressed and discriminated-against ethnic groups. We can no more honorably close the door now than the descendants of English colonists who stole Indian land could for the Germans, or Irish, or Chinese, or Russian, or Polish, or Filipino, or Italian, or Jewish immigrants who succeeded them. They have always been the ones who did the work. Who pay taxes (so they are not caught) but receive no benefits, because we pass laws against “illegal” immigrants – denying them health care, denying them safety. Yet they are here; they get sick and injured, in working two and three jobs. And paying into benefit funds such as pensions and Social Security and Medicare for those of us, from earlier immigrations, to retire on, and receive our health care from. We can pass a health reform law that specifically excludes them from health coverage, not even allowing them to buy with their own money, but they will still need health care. We can even, in a gesture worthy of the persecutions of the 1920s, not pass the “Dream Act” so people who were brought up in this country can attend college with their classmates. Vigilantes can “patrol” the border, and fascist thugs like Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio can terrorize entire communities. We can pass laws that make it a crime to help save the life of a person found dying in the desert. We can talk of children born to immigrant parents as “anchor babies”, and here I need to refer people to Lalo Alcaraz’ Christmas Day cartoon in his strip “La Cucaracha”. We can, and do, do all sorts of mean, short-sighted, and selfish things to oppress people, but this does not make them wise, honorable, moral, or even sensible. We can, however, be better than that.
In the coming year, I hope the Dream Act passes. And I hope that we can define ourselves, as Americans and as human beings, by our wisdom, our foresight, and the nobler parts of our nature, rather than by our narrowness, meaness, and bigotry.
Happy New Year.
 Lehane, Dennis. The Given Day. Harper Collins. New York. 2008.
You are a very compassionate, well-spoken, and insightful man. I'm so glad that you're out there, reading and writing, helping me to work through these knotty issues (which, on reflection, may not be so knotty, after all!).
Happy New Year to all.
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