09 April 2010


Yesterday I watched Martin Scorsese's brilliant historical drama Gangs of New York, in which rival factions of Irish immigrants battled for ascendancy against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the political corruption of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, and the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. I was struck by the irony of the self-styled "natives" (Irish born in this country, whose parents or grandparents had been immigrants) considered themselves to be true Americans, while newer arrivals from Ireland were viewed as invaders.

We've seen this exclusionary attitude over and over in our history. Those already living here have looked down their noses at succeeding waves of newcomers from Germany, Poland, Italy, China, Vietnam. We see it currently with regard to the influx of documented and undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America. Such is the ugly resentment, especially along the US-Mexican border, that armed bands of thugs calling themselves "militia" patrol the area, with the tacit approval of the US Border Patrol.

I lived for twenty years in southern Arizona, four of those years as caretaker of a nature preserve sixteen miles north of the border. I savored the blend and contrast of cultures, enjoyed hearing Spanish along with English being spoken, and was graced by being accepted into relationships with several Latina women, as well as those from other cultures. My life has been blessed by deep and abiding friendships with Latinos, blacks, Asians, and whites all over this nation.

All of which leaves me dumbstruck at the complete idiocy of xenophobia to which Americans are prone. It seems that nearly everyone regards at least one cultural group as Other. News flash -- we are ALL Other. Every single one of us is descended from ancestors who were immigrants to North America -- some by choice, some by force. Even tribes of Native Americans are new immigrants, having migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia a mere 13,000-15,000 years ago (depending on which paleontologist or anthropologist you listen to). The white European concept of America grew to its present state through greed, broken treaties, duplicity, and military conquest.

This morning's NYTimes featured an article describing two recent Supreme Court decisions affecting both migrant and legal resident workers from Mexico. Coupled with having seen the film yesterday, the article brought home with doubled force the destructive and hypocritical thinking behind our suspicion toward immigrants. I wonder: whatever happened to the tolerant and welcoming sentiment expressed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? For the benefit of those who've forgotten, or who've never read the words, here they are (bold text mine) --

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
the air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I life my lamp beside the golden door."

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