April 21, 2006
Immigrants already American
Starting at Guadalupe Center on Kansas City’s Westside, five hundred-plus people marched up Broadway toward city hall April 10. White and black joined Hispanic in what turned out to be a celebration of the complexities of American society. They waved U.S. and Mexican flags. Singing songs, chanting in Spanish and English, and venting frustration over W-era injustices against the working class, the throng stretched for two and sometimes three blocks.
The most important part of the demonstration was not that another 2,500 people joined the marchers at Ilus Davis Park between city hall and the Federal Court House. The politicians’ speeches faded against the backdrop of people, color and light. The rallying cries were less important than what the marchers and their friends did that day.
They put human soul into “immigration.” I put word in quotes because some have turned it into a dirty word.
Reading editorials and letters in the paper, listening to rows of Bill O’Reillys, and hearing Kris Kobach and his fellow Republicans refer to immigrants one would get the notion that immigrants are nothing more than insidious little bugs munching away at the fabric of our precious American heritage and freedoms.
But the demonstrators showed America is what immigration is all about. Americans will change. Things will be difficult at times and may get even more complicated. But if we stick to the principles or democracy and open society, principles that let people from other places come here and give new lives their best shot, if we let demonstrations like the one that took place April 10 happen and allow them to change things, we will be just fine.
This stands in opposition to the latest of the bugbears that Republicans have dreamed up to keep us all distracted from a raid on the national treasury, and a pointless and failed war in Iraq. Immigrants join family values, moral values and the alleged War on Terror as ways to scare us.
Unfortunately for “them” — I use the third-person impersonal to refer to TV and radio bobbleheads, politicians (Kobach) who can’t find real issues, and a president and administration that don’t know ends to their own arrogance — their bid to beat up on the voiceless isn’t working out so well. Mexican Americans, immigrants and their friends have proven that it isn’t just voting that makes a democracy. Hundreds of thousands of people marching in American cities turn out not to be so voiceless — or voteless.
Walking Broadway and into downtown that day, we knew the “immigration debate” — a bunch of white guys agreeing with one another is hardly a debate — was not about immigration. It’s about Mexicans. And not Mexicans as people, individuals contributing to a society, people with dreams and hopes and ambitions. Rather, the debate centers on abstract brown people — another in a series of dark hoards threatening to rape our women, steal our children and our stuff. The “immigration debate” is a racial and ethnic attack specifically targeted on Mexican Americans and set in the same kind of language that accompanies all such molestations. (Read: the rhetoric of the KKK, nativism, etc.)
Like racism and nativism, the immigration debate goes to a deeper flaw in the American character. Americans, since the founding of the colonies, have sought to turn back the clock to a time that never existed. America of yesteryear was not a place where everyone got along and knew their place. It was not a time when Mexicans behaved themselves and obeyed.
Yesteryear was a time of grave injustice. In the 1920s and 1930s, when Jim Crow grew into a big, strong adult, some 15,000 American citizens were deported to Mexico under a federal law written mostly to clear the field for white farmers in southern California. Not immigrants but citizens. People whose only crime was being born to parents whose parents or parents’ parents were from Mexico. In the 1940s, America packed away tens of thousands of American citizens of Asian descent into concentration camps, mostly to get at their assets. In the 1950s, while Ward and June debated on whether to watch Milton Berle or Red Skelton, the South was a hotbed of oppression, lynching and intimidation.
These are broad swaths. I could go on about what happened to Native Americans in the 1890s, 1930s, 1950s, industrial workers at the hands of rapacious capitalists or Chinese in the 1860s, 1890s and 1920s. It goes on and on.
The short, selective memories of white society — a society so obsessed with its own history that it rewrites vast swaths of it — has erased the ugliness surrounding these periods of anti-democratic oppression and its participation in it. But Indians, Chinese, Japanese and Italian Americans haven’t forgotten.
And in the wake of another round of vituperative polemic, Mexican Americans haven’t forgotten. Some people, mostly whites, mostly conservatives, and mostly anti-modern want to draw definitive borders around very complex issues. The effort is legal as well as physical, enforcing law and building fences. But immigration has no black or white. It does not obey artificial boundaries. It bleeds and blends into American life. Mexicans are scapegoats in a search for simple axioms based on false ideals, choosy memories, and anti-democratic and very authoritarian aspects of the American mind.
The sad part is that in this, people get hurt.
At the demonstration, a man asked me what I thought of immigrants. That, to me, was easy. Anyone who comes here intending on staying is already an American.
Here’s how I know: Francis Bauer came here in 1901 to escape military duty in the dying Austro-Hungarian empire. He worked in the Armour meatpacking plant in Armourdale until the Missouri and Kansas rivers rose in 1903. As the water came in on the killing floor, his foreman pointed a gun at him and told him stay until the end of his shift and then left the building. Francis was no idiot and ran right out of there, boarded a train and went back to Europe. He snuck into Austria — to avoid impressments — and back to his town, Steinberg, in the eastern part of the country to fetch his girlfriend, Pauline. Almost immediately, they married and came back to the U.S. They settled in Kansas City and had kids. Francis helped cut the stone that is now Guardian Angels Church at Westport and Jarboe Street. His son, William, had ten kids. When William died, part of the money he had saved put the new angel on the apex of the roof of the church and set the old, concrete angel, inside the church itself.
My point is that Francis Bauer, my great grandfather, was an immigrant. A few years later, the American Congress outlawed immigration from his part of Europe. An arbitrary act makes something legal one day illegal the next. But legal or illegal, once he landed here with Pauline, he wasn’t going back. He had become American merely by the act of coming here.
Immigration is about people, not ciphers or abstract, evil beasts or dark hoards. It is about neighbors, friends and relatives. It is about making sure that everyone who lands here gets a fair shake. Enough immigrants may change American culture. It may make American evolve into something other than what it is not. Good for us.
For those wishing to have something a little simpler: If we stick to our founding principles, the United States will be just fine.
Or even simpler: Anyone who comes to America intending on staying is already an American.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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