On this day that celebrates America’s Independence, our TVs blast pictures of fireworks and barbeques and parties. But we also witness the scenes in Southern California, where American citizens have blocked buses carrying illegal immigrants from entering their communities.
Perhaps most disturbing are the film clips of these organizers waving American flags while screaming, “Go home!” It harkens back to an earlier time of a little African American girl, Ruby Bridges, walking bravely to school in New Orleans, flanked by secret servicemen whose job it was to protect this child from the screams of whites threatened by integration.
Not much has changed in America since those days in 1960.
True, integration is the norm now and the idea of someone being forced to sit on the back of the bus simply because of the color of their skin seems absurd to most Americans. At the very least, Civil Rights laws have resulted in today’s children accepting and expecting to go to school with classmates of all ethnicities and religions.
But the vocal protests in California are disturbing. Not because those who enter the U.S. illegally should be allowed to bypass our immigration system – they shouldn’t. But because of the venom spewed at mostly women and children by citizens waving the American flag – a flag that symbolizes freedom, opportunity and equality.
Those who advocate rounding up the 11 million illegals hiding in our shadows and shipping them back to wherever they’ve come from are failing to look at the bigger picture – and that means asking the questions not being asked: Why are people fleeing over our borders at ever increasing numbers? Why are these people risking their safety and often their lives to travel hundreds of miles in order to enter the land of the free? Why isn’t our government enacting trade embargos with the countries they are fleeing from – countries like Mexico, one of our largest trading partners, whose corrupt government, police force and drug cartels make life for its citizens so unbearable that they are willing to risk it all for a chance at a normal, free and safer life? And what would happen to these immigrants if we did send them back? For many, a certain death.
Since 1886, America’s Statue of Liberty has beckoned the world to give us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. But the reality of our history on immigration is another story. In the 1840s, the surge in Irish Catholic immigration was met with hostility by many Protestant Americans, especially those who could trace their ancestry to America’s beginnings and viewed themselves as “natives.” The same reception was met by Italians in the late 1800s to early 1900s – again, too Catholic and too “ethnic.” And yet, I have heard some Irish- and Italian-Americans today dismay over the fact that in their minds, Hispanics are taking over America. Maybe, but 56.7 million Americans – or 18 percent – can claim Irish descent, and Americans with Italian heritage are now the 4th largest ethnic group in our country. In other words, the Irish and the Italians did take over – and we are enriched by their culture that has become so engrained in our way of life.
Illegal immigration is nothing new. My own great-great grandmother who emigrated from Lebanon to work and send for her ill husband and children, discovered upon landing in America that her sponsors had failed to meet her ship. She languished in a holdover center at Battery Park for several months, before deciding to take matters in to her own hands. She wasn’t going back to Lebanon, where life was as unsafe there then as it is for many of the illegal immigrants sitting on the buses in California today. And she wasn’t going to leave her fate in the hands of the Battery detention center. So she climbed out a window and approached a police officer, showing him the address of her sponsors that she written on a piece of paper and kept in her pocket all this time. There were many immigrants then who couldn’t speak English, so the cop assumed her status was legal and put her on a bus for upstate New York. Five generations later, her hundreds of descendants thank her for her tenacity and bravery, with nothing apparent to indicate that they are the beneficiaries of the illegal entry of their ancestor.
In other words, contrary to those who cry foul about the influx today of Spanish-speaking immigrants, assimilation does happen over time.
While it’s true that the security of our country demands that we tighten our borders and have immigration policies in place, it is this Congress’ refusal to vote on immigration reform, and the hostility and prejudice directed at today’s illegals from the south that are glaringly uncomfortable and striking. We are a country of immigrants, all of us. Some of our families have been here longer than others. And yet, we continue to resent any immigrant who arrives unable to speak English and who doesn’t measure up to our ideal of what an American is. We also fail to ask the hard questions and admit that the answers to illegal immigration are not as black and white as we’d like to believe.
Two hundred thirty eight years later, who we really are conflicts with who we should project and aspire to be – a country that welcomes those yearning to breathe free.