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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Shadow of the Immigration Wall

What's casting that long shadow on the horizon of the promised land?  A large tent with a "Welcome" mat? ...

A promised land, yes, that’s what America is.  The hardy first immigrants from centuries past had come for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to flee religious persecution and poor economic conditions in their prior homelands.  It seems that the predominant Roman Catholic sect of Christianity was having a field day over in Europe persecuting with little mercy their recalcitrant Protestant brethren.  This precipitated many of the latter to flee to the New World, seeking only religious tolerance.  Over here, the ordinary citizen is reminded to this day that the US was founded on Protestant Christian principles.

The Mayflower had set sail from England destined for America in 1620, carrying 102 passengers, 20 to 30 crew members and 2 dogs.  A group of Puritans, together with an equal number of a wing of the new Puritan movement, called Pilgrims (or Separatists), comprised the “passenger” list.  Its destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, in what is now New York City, where the passengers had received generous land grants from the king.  But, the ship was blown off course and with the combination of poor weather landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The famous story highlights two interesting points.  First, since the arrival of the passengers at an unfamiliar location was beyond their charter, it appears that they were not only some of the earliest immigrants but also the first illegal immigrants.  Did they have to be sent back to do the whole trip over again in legal fashion?  Of course not.  Second, once free from religious persecution here, they would use that new freedom in a somewhat curious manner.  Turning the tables, they would interject their own brand of intolerance and exclusion on successive generations of immigrants, especially their former Roman Catholic oppressors.  Sometimes memories can be extremely long.  Revenge is not exactly a Christian principle, but it is uniquely human.  So instead of tolerance and inclusion, there would be intolerance and exclusion.

Today, roughly 35 million people, more than 10% of the total US population, claim to be Mayflower descendants.  How did it get this way?  The US population stood at a total of just under 4 million in 1790, the very first enumeration that the new constitution provided for.  Of that number, 3/5 of the white population were English, 1/5 of the white population were Scottish or Irish and 1/5 of the entire population were African American slaves.  The census asked just 5 questions: the number of free white males over 16 years old, free white males under 16, free white females, other, and number of slaves.  The new US government contained only 75 post offices nationwide.  At first glance the population seemed quite small, but it was growing very rapidly.  By 1800 the number of states had grown to 16 and the total population by more than 35% to 5.3 million.

In 1845 the US actually fought a war with Mexico, over immigration.  The immediate cause of the Mexican-American War was the US annexation of the state of Texas into the Union.  The underlying reason was related.  At the time there was what was described as an unstoppable flow of American pioneer citizens, surging west and south across the Mississippi River into Spanish Texas.  Before the divisive war had ended, the US army had marched right through the gates of Mexico City, where it received a friendly, welcome cheer from the local inhabitants.

But the 1848 treaty that ended the conflict saw a US withdrawal northward to the natural border of the Rio Grande River, setting the present southern and western border of Texas with Mexico.  The stated rationale was that the US did not want to extend the offer of US citizenship to all Mexicans.  In the aftermath of the war, the size of the US was increased by a full 1/3.  The Mexican territory, together with Texas, would net all or part of 10 additional new states, including the crown jewel of California.  At the same time, Mexican-Americans north of the border were reduced to second class US citizens in a world where intolerance and exclusion for them would continue to be the de facto law of the land.

The ordinary citizen is made to understand that Texas must be one heck of an attractive place to settle.  In the mid-19th century it was literally overrun by US immigrants from the north and east.  But at the turn of the 21st century Texas and the old Mexican territory which includes the US southwest are being overrun by Mexican immigrants from the south.  Along the stretch of desert border to the Pacific, many US citizens are hesitant to attempt to accommodate the influx, as they had once been accommodated.  There are some, in fact, who would go so far to say that America is justified to build a wall to seal them out.  This vision is hardly portrayed as a large tent with a welcome mat.

-Michael D'Angelo

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Lenses, Filters and Walls

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. …”

As 2013 opens, guns are in the news again, with the tragic mass murders by a lone gunman inside a Newtown, CT elementary school.  Ordinary Americans are numbed by the senselessness.  At the same time, immigration and attempts to reform it are also in the news.  Are the two issues seen as fairly related?

Owing his 2012 re-election victory in large degree to overwhelming Latino and Asian support, President Obama has indicated that he will seek federal legislation on a citizenship path in what is described as a “fast push.”  Together with Senate Democrats, the president will try to carve a legislative path to citizenship for illegal immigrants with one comprehensive bill.  Republicans propose to tackle the issue piecemeal.  It seems to be a marked improvement over their pre-election policy of obstruction.

Without getting sidetracked in the partisanship generated by thorny national issues, we ordinary citizens should permit ourselves to entertain a diversion into how we see things, what we are seeing, and who, in particular, has the keys to the video room.

At one time or another, we have all heard the expression of a person who “looks at the world through rose colored glasses.”  It’s meant to describe someone who is filled with optimism, sees the positive in everything, to a fault.  That someone cannot be deterred from the mission of turning an abstract idea into a reality, sometimes against all odds.

Have we ever taken the time to consider how we see things?  Our eyes are nothing more than lenses, so the eye doctor says.  Thanks to the retina and the optic nerve, they allow us to see things.  We call this vision.  Filters help us see certain things and exclude certain other things.  Walls provide the mechanism to permit some to see all things, on their side of the wall, and to deny those on the other side from seeing anything at all.  Fences are a sort of wall.

Lenses, filters and walls each influence the way we see things. Why do we have them? The ordinary citizen’s understanding of reality flows through a prism that reflects all sorts of things other than reality, self-interest being among them. Muckraking author Upton Sinclair once said that “It is impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on not understanding it.”

Perhaps, a good place to begin a discussion, and end this week’s reflection, is with an excerpt from a poem.  In 1914 at about the time of the outbreak of World War I, the Great War as it was then known, Robert Frost authored a poem titled Mending Wall.  The poem is most notable perhaps for the popular line “Good fences make good neighbors.”  But it is rather the following lines which inspire the intensity of reflection which passionate issues sometimes demand:

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.”

While some walls would appear to be absolutely necessary, can we identify any in our own ordinary lives behind whose protective shadow we could benefit from some shared company?  Can we identify other walls which may have outgrown their usefulness, which by all rights should come down?

-Michael D'Angelo