15 November, 2014

Unaccompanied minors

Here's yet another news report about children crossing the border alone from Latin America in search of a better life in the U.S.: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/us/honduran-youth-finds-welcome-mat-at-oakland-school-designed-for-immigrants.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

This one stood out to me for its focus on how children and teenagers try to remake their lives here.

But what I would like is to hear a politician acknowledge this kind of truth...

In early part of the 20th century, my grandfather arrived on Ellis Island. He was thirteen years old. And he was alone.

His name was Pietro, but he soon adopted the Anglicized name Peter, which has been passed down through two more generations in our family. He left behind his mother and stepfather in southern Italy. My mother tells me that he and his stepfather didn't get along, and so it was decided that he would come here to join an aunt and make a better life.

He did. He had no more than an eighth grade education - as did my grandmother, who was born in the U.S. to Italian immigrant parents - but he learned to speak English fluently, got married and opened a successful restaurant and bar. He raised three children, all of whom became loving and devoted parents to their own children. The younger two (including my mother) went on to graduate from college. My sister and have spent most of our three decades going to school. Is it the American Dream? We are happy and healthy; we have nice homes and good medical insurance and stable jobs; we have each other. 

So I look back on that story and I think, how very lucky we've been. Yes, we all worked hard. But we were all given the chance to work hard. Do I deserve to be here, by chance of my birth, any more than anyone else?

My father's family can trace their ancestry back through eight or more generations born on North American soil - as far back as the first half of the 18th century. Is that a better claim than being the granddaughter of a 13-year-old boy who sailed across an ocean alone?
My grandparents, Ida and Peter,
dancing at a wedding in the 1960s

Many of my ancestors made their way across the Atlantic in search of a better life, or adventure, or maybe just the hope of getting rich, or richer. The best story, perhaps true, perhaps not, recounts a young nobleman who was kidnapped from a port in Wales and sold into indentured servitude, eventually impressing the plantation owner and charming his daughter into marriage. But all of those ancestors, however brave or brilliant, came to conquer and colonize a land that they had no right to take.

I know, practically speaking, that we need a path to legal status for those already in the country; incentives for those not yet here to pursue legal routes to immigration; and security for the border. I also think (although it's too much to discuss here) that there needs to be a serious discussion of how we decide who "counts" as a refugee in the context of drug trade-fueled violence in Central America. If I knew exactly how to achieve all of that, I'd be shouting it from the rooftops until someone listened.

In the meantime, I just want to hear a politician speak from a place of acknowledging that those of us who are already here legally have no moral high ground from which to offer and defend their proposals. We are here because we were lucky, and because our grandparents, great-grandparents and so on were willing to risk their lives to try for that better life...and in the cases of those who can - not without pride - claim to be descendants of the American Revolution, because our ancestors didn't much care who might already be living here and what our presence might do to their culture or way of life.

Leaders are so quick to point to the immigrants in their own families with pride, to lay claim to the idea that Americans are special stock, descended disproportionately from people who risked what they already had in pursuit of something "better". I've never yet heard a politician start with, There but for the grace of God go I...or consider whether current immigration policies would have allowed their ancestors to enter in the first place. It would be political suicide to publicly contemplate the morality of colonizing a land by force versus crossing a border without papers.  

It doesn't mean we should throw open the gates and let everyone who wants to immigrate do so. It just means that we have no basis, none whatsoever, on which to judge the choices of those who will try to come by any path they can find.

If you have children, what wouldn't you do to keep them safe, warm and fed? I would risk anything to protect my son. Politicians who say that people who don't respect our laws don't deserve to live in our country, who label the actions of desperate people as immoral? That level of condescension, of hypocrisy, of self-absorbed ignorance makes me want to hit something. Or someone.

My father used to say that I was not "rule-governed," so I would say this: what rule, what law, what policy is worthy of anyone's respect if it says that a mother* trying to save her children is a criminal?


*And writers about American culture say we've created a cult of (ideal) motherhood. They leave out the "European/white" part.