Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Immigrant Son (I)

The meme said: “Rewarding illegal aliens with citizenship is unfair to immigrants who followed our laws and waited their turn.”

The reply came quickly: “Are they envious because America is generous?” (Mt. 20:1-16)

I’d like to answer that question for two reasons, neither of which is that I'm inclined to dive into the fray over immigration reform.

I am a first generation American born in the U.S. to Latin American immigrants.  The meme concerned my parents.  So, I should say something.

Secondly, my Church considers “herself a mother to all.”  She exhorts us to a “generous openness” to migrants, and calls us to “recognize the suffering Christ [in them], even if this appears to bring us no tangible and immediate benefits” (Evangelii Gaudium, 210).  If it's a matter of concern to my Church, it's a matter of concern to me.

Not that either reason matters to either political party—though, predictably, Churchmen will be trotted out save the legislation if it falters.

Democrats want 11 million additional votes, which they expect to flow like water from citizenship or whatever expedient politicians devise.  Republicans want to retain contributions from an insistent Chamber of Commerce, and remain in its good graces.

The fix is in, we’re told.  All that remains is the proper way to sell it to the rubes.  What anybody else wants is irrelevant to the process currently unfolding in D.C.

The two parties are like Big-Time Wrestling promoters.  “First, you throw the other guy down and choke him.  Then, he gouges your eyes, and you fly off, screaming in agony.  Yeah, that’s good!”

Like most things in Washington, this charade has left me feeling alienated, frustrated and soiled.  It’s discomforting to watch deceivers in action.

With respect to liberals, they always get what they want, by hook or by crook.  They repulse me.

With respect to the Chamber, I don’t understand its logic.  It wants cheap labor.  Yet, it’s the illegality of immigrants’ circumstances that makes their labor cheap.  Are newly naturalized citizens likely to waive their rights as Americans to a dignified life?  Or, will they join a union and strike for $15/hr. wages to wait on a counter at a burger stop?

I’d think that if the Chamber’s members wanted to enjoy the benefits of cheap labor, it would conspire with legislators to keep illegals in the shadows.  That suggestion highlights just how repugnant a motive for political action cheap labor is, though, doesn’t it?  Not that buying votes cheaply is any nobler.

There is no shame in D.C., however.  Just larded troughs, and denizens to belly up to them.

Some preliminary comments are in order.  The fabricated urgency of this problem galls me.  This can’t go on any longer?  This "broken" system must be fixed, now?  Really?

As I recall, that was the rhetoric used to push healthcare reform.  How’s that working out?  Do we want to make that mistake again?

How does this episodic mobbing of the public mind retain its vitality?  

So, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Tom Donohue and Jill Abramson want immigration reform!  So what?

Illegal immigrants and their children have reportedly lived in the shadows for decades.  And?  That’s one of the things that happens when you live outside of the law.  You have to keep out of sight.

I sympathize with their self-inflicted predicament, but not so much that I feel their urgency, or either Party’s.  Refugee situations excepted, the solution to whatever economic, political or social ills they might face in their own countries lies in fixing their countries, or entering and staying in ours legally, not illegally.

They can’t wait another year (or decade even) until Americans reach a modicum of consensus about how to resolve their uninvited problem without completely overlooking their unappreciated law breaking?   

Be reasonable.  Minimally, demonstrate a simulacrum of the consideration expected from others.

About my parents, dad emigrated legally from the Dominican Republic in the early 1920’s when he was three.  Mom emigrated legally from El Salvador in the late 1940’s when she was 27. 

Grammy came to Spanish Harlem with her sister, my dad and his baby sister, Aunt Lou.  His dad, my granddad, was gone, but NY’s Hispanic community was tight. 

Dad excelled in school and was admitted to Columbia.  I’m amazed he applied coming from where he did.  Financial aid was not generally available in those days, however; so, he didn’t attend.

My mom’s older sister, Aunt Letty—as lovely a woman as I knew in childhood—was the first of her family to come to America: San Francisco during the war.  She soldered in a shipyard. 

Mom followed later, once a family-and-friend beachhead had been established.  She worked in restaurants and hotels, which must have been funny because she didn’t know much English when she arrived. 

No adult in my family of origin was born in the U.S.  I had relatives from Latin America, an uncle from Norway and another from Russia.  Neither were many of their friends and people dropping by our house from the U.S.

Family reunions, and parties with family friends, were decidedly ethnic affairs.  My dad and Aunt Lou were the only adults in the place who spoke English without an accent.  (New Yorkers didn’t have accents.)  And, they’d speak and sing in Spanish. 

Yet, everyone was legal, as far as I knew. 

I’m pretty sure about that because mom would have let the person have it if he, or she, wasn’t.  She didn’t like law breaking, which she considered a form of disrespect.  And, no adult in my family tolerated disrespect for America. 

Growing up, I never met a more gung-ho group of Americans than my family elders.  To a person, they said the same thing: “America is the greatest country in the world!  And, don’t you ever forget it.”

The reason for its greatness was that people like them, little people, could come, find work, maybe even start a business or buy a house (with the GI Bill in my parents’ case).  Outsiders were welcomed to claim their little piece of the American dream.

Immigrants could live on their feet instead of their hands and knees.  Everybody wasn’t into his or her personal business.  They had freedom to grow and build a life according to their own lights, not everybody else’s.

My elders considered this alone an amazing act of generosity on America’s part, one for which they were eternally grateful.  They were so proud to be Americans.

Long after my dad had died and we kids had moved out of the family home, leaving mom alone, I made the mistake of encouraging her to sell her house, return to her country with the proceeds and live out her days like a queen.  She snapped, “This is my country, now!”

I’m a first-generation American born in mid-1950’s San Francisco.  I went crazy with the rest of the culture in the 1960’s and 1970's.  The term “great Satan” hadn’t been coined. yet.  Nevertheless, I had internalized its contempt for capitalist, militaristic, imperialistic, hypocritical America.  Christian America, too.

It must have pained my elders terribly to see what was happening to me—with my wild hair, Hendrix headband and rebellious mantras.  America was unjust?  Seriously?

I caused more than a little consternation at family gatherings.  My elders remained firm.  America was the greatest country in the world, which I would come to realize when I grew up.  It didn’t owe me anything.  I owed it everything.

They were right.  America is not the selfish, individualistic, egoistic, imperialistic country that people make it out to be.  I saw this especially clearly after a decade of living abroad, where people have nothing to learn from us about these failings.  It is great, and good, and just—just not perfect!

I am compelled to honor my parents and elders in my assessment of immigration reform.  I don’t have the right to form my judgment without considering what they would say.

I don’t think my parents or family elders, all dead now, would approve of what is going on in D.C.  

I know my mom wouldn’t.  She had too much regard for law to countenance rewarding lawbreakers with citizenship.  My dad was steeped in Jesuit education, Thomistic philosophy, and Democratic idealism.  Yet, neither do I think he’d approve.

Both pulled for the little guy, as long as the little guy didn’t cheat or dishonor himself.  They would certainly understand why people would come and stay here.  What they wouldn't understand is why America would overlook its own rules.  Even people here illegally wouldn't expect that to happen.

Mom and dad didn’t believe that ends justify any means; making a better life for oneself by violating a nation’s immigration laws, for example.  Ends-justify-the-means reasoning was simply wrong, the wide and easy path back to barbarism.

To them, people who cut the line were sinverguenzas, shameless people.  I’m afraid that’s how they’d look at illegal immigrants.

Rewarding illegal aliens with citizenship is unjust to immigrants who followed our laws and waited their turn. 

That’s not necessarily the end of the story.  Legal immigrants might choose, for humane or religious reasons, not to press their claims in justice; to suffer injustice silently, maybe even happily.  That would be their prerogative.

But, they should be polled on the issue.  Machinating legislators should consider their claims and respect their concerns as D.C. tampers with just laws.  They may ignore legal immigrants, but not prudently.  It's not their prerogative.

I plan to address the Gospel citation in Part II.


  1. Very well said Max. You make a good case.

    1. Thanks, Jack. Don't forget to read part II.