I've gotten some really raucous emails lately concerning immigration. It's somewhat understandable with the new law in Arizona and the climate of paranoia prevalent in the United States of America today. Still, it is disconcerting. It leaves me wondering about the nature of the American Dream and how we market it to the world. We push our standards and values on others as if they were the best and only values worth anything on the whole damn planet then we wonder why they would go to any length to live here. We fill ourselves with outrage at their unwavering desire to be a part of us after we have implanted that very yearning in their hearts. That is very odd indeed.
Generally speaking, I don't believe that Mexican citizens want to come to America to take advantage of our welfare system. They don't want good enough. They want to live the American dream. They want the American dream for their children. When I lived in Kansas, in my college years, I met a couple of fellows who came here to work. They lived sparsely so they could send money home. They worked in the local meat packing plant. I worked in that plant on the sanitation crew for a short while, mainly because the job offended my American sensibilities. They worked many 12 hour days and took odd jobs on weekends. The two shared an apartment hoping to save enough to go back home and live with their families for a while before having to come back to America to work yet again. See, there were no jobs to be had back home. What else was a father and a husband to do?
I think about them when the topic of undocumented workers come up. Then I think about my family history and I look at current immigration standards. What would you do as a young father and husband in their place, in the place of the many who cross the border illegally every day? What lengths would you go to so that you could insure a decent future for your family?
I am not saying that open borders would be a good solution. But I can't say that I believe we have a decent, humane system in place right now. I don't know what a positive resolution to this situation would be. However, there are some things that I do know.
When my great grandparents came into this country at the turn of the 20th century, they had no special job skills. My great grandmother was fleeing the potato famine that had hit the poor in Ireland hard. Two of my great grandfathers came here from Canada to work. They were common folk. They found jobs in local factories, the factories that were full out producing American made goods at that time. We all know those factory jobs are gone though the demand for unskilled labor remains in other areas...domestic, agriculture, horticulture, etc. The difference is that when my great grandparents came it was not a long and expensive process to gain admittance to the United States of America. It wasn't a process that all but excluded unskilled laborers. America was really the land of opportunity where an illiterate immigrant could dream the American dream for the next generation of his/her kin. The opportunity and the dream no longer exist. We welcome immigrants...doctors, lawyers, scientists and all sorts of other professionals. The unskilled laborer dreaming of a better life for the next generation has been squeezed out of the process. I believe it is the unskilled immigrant laborer that made America great. It was their hunger for and their enthusiasm in pursuing the American dream that spurred on a nation. Perhaps it is not unlike the enthusiasm American youth display in dreaming of being the president some day. It exhibits hope, ambition and a drive to succeed that replenish national spirit and propel us forward to a better and brighter future.
My question is not, "Why do they insist on coming?" My question is, "Why don't we recognize the potential national treasure we are disregarding?" I can't help but wonder what we would have lost if immigration was as selective when my great-grandparents came to this great country of ours as it is now. What is so wrong with being common folk in a nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal?" We have lost something very American in this process of selectively seeking the "right kind" of immigrant. Most of all, we have lost the ability to see what positive contributions can be made by those who will go to the most extreme measures to ensure a better future for their children. I suspect we have lost the hunger for the American dream, so secure in living it, that our distaste for those who still possess that gnawing hunger sickens us.