Ever since Lucy and her band of our Homo Sapien ancestors left Africa some 70,000 years ago, our species has been migrating. From our savanna homeland, we have spread over the entire globe so that almost every nook and cranny of our planet has been populated with our species. There are some who even talk of colonizing Mars. While we are known as a tool-making primate, we should also be recognized as confirmed travelers.
There are many reasons for our wanderlust. Whether we are enticed to improve our lives, evicted by harsh circumstances or just plain curious, we do get around. Not that this constant migrating has necessarily been easy. We’ve had to adjust to new climates, master the earth to provide food or, if the land was already occupied, confront its occupants. While this commingling of newcomers and strangers can be peaceful and mutually beneficial, it frequently results in conflicts. All too often, warfare is the means by which one group conquers another people’s land and lords over the vanquished.
To bring this situation to our own country, weren’t even the first Europeans who settled here immigrants who didn’t speak the local languages and certainly didn’t pass inspection by the local inhabitants. The millions of people misnamed Indians were here for an estimated 15 to 25,000 years before they were “discovered” by the Europeans. These two peoples replayed a theme familiar to our species: the newcomers believing the land and people were for their taking while the indigenous, even if curious and initially friendly, quickly resented the intruders. Not that there weren’t periods–no matter how brief–of friendship and mutual accommodation. Would the Pilgrims have survived if it weren’t for the aid of the local tribe?
But humans, unfortunately, are very parochial and dichotomize people into We and They. We cling to our own family, nation, co-religionists and others similar to ourselves and are prone to be suspicious, if not hostile, to strangers. The meetings of two peoples may range from raised eyebrows and avoidance to hostility and wars. Misunderstandings play a role. For example, the concept of the Europeans was the ownership of land with the building of fences while the Native Americans’ was of sharing and, and if not mutual respect, live and let live, including benefiting from trade. But let us not romanticize the Native Americans. Despite their common ancestors, they were not always cooperative with neighboring tribes or nations; hostilities and subjugation were all too frequent.
While the United States has been blessed with the many resources required for the industrial age, we have had as an invaluable advantage a vast reservoir of people who immigrated–or were brought as slaves–from all parts of the world. These peoples provided the labor to make us the most technically advanced nation on the globe. Despite those among us who were–or are–intolerant toward newcomers, we have had the largest influx of “foreigners” in history. When I was a child, I recall the title of a book referring to our numbers as 100,000,00. Now–while I may be old, I’m not that ancient–we have tripled our numbers, passing the 300,000,000 million mark. Even the most xenophobic would find it difficult to deny–or disprove–that the diversity and numbers of our peoples have enriched us not only economically but culturally as well.
Let me divest myself of impartiality by mentioning that my father was an “illegal” — not that my grandmother nor any parent gives birth to a child whom they consider to be illegal. Although my grandfather and his two sons immigrated to escape pogroms and military conscription in Russia, they intended to bring my father, then ten years old, and my grandmother, to this country. They were very similar to immigrants whose men folk come first, get jobs, establish themselves and then have the means to bring the rest of the family. However, they did not realize that World War I and the Russian Revolution would upset their plans. What was to be a short separation lengthened into over eight years.
At the time, Congress, politically divided then as now, found a patchwork compromise: you could bring in your children with one stipulation. They had to be minors. Well, my father was no longer a minor! Our family would have been devastated if he declared his correct age–he would have been immediately deported from Ellis Island. So he stated his age as being two years younger. I asked my grandson’s elementary school assembly, where I had been invited to discuss my novel “Land of Dreams,” what my father should have done. Hands waved frantically and then all but one youngster agreed, “He should lie!”
I was relieved that I could tell the youngsters–and the attending teachers and principal–how the story ended. After World War II, my father returned to his Russian birthplace and despite the war’s devastation, discovered that his town hall was still standing. He got a copy of his birth certificate and when he returned, rather than being prosecuted or deported, he was allowed to retire two years earlier! I was able to tell the youngsters, “Justice comes to America, but it may take time.” Witness how long it took to free those involuntary immigrants who were brought here as slaves. Or Japanese-Americans, even citizens, to be exonerated after their having spent years in our World War II concentration camps.
We now are again debating the issue of immigration. While there are millions of newcomers who are undocumented–a term I prefer and is more accurate than illegal–they make up an estimated one quarter of agricultural, building trades, domestic, resort and restaurant workers. Despite our employers’ desperate need for these low paid workers, Arizona, in 2004, sharply restricted these workers from entering the state. The result: farmers were unable to get workers to harvest their crops; nearly a billion dollars worth of produce rotted in the fields. The xenophobic legislators not only prevented undocumented workers from making their low wages, but they also harmed their “legal” indigenous–and citizen–farmers.
Our politicized patchwork of immigration compromises has contributed to the problem. We allowed 400,000 Mexican workers to enter the country legally, work, and return home. Some had the capital to remain in Mexico, others returned the following year. Family members would remain in Mexico and not have to come here to remain together. Congress abolished this mutually beneficial and controllable arrangement–called the “braceros” program–in an anti-foreign pique in the 1960’s. One does not have to be a mathematician to realize what happened when our nation needed these workers and these workers needed jobs. But the government did come to its senses and confronted reality; in 1983, Congress finally enabled 3,000,000 workers to establish themselves as “legals.” Today there are those who seem shocked–or ignorant–when such proposals are made.
Another example as to how our nation has contributed to the problem: our subsidized corn–paid with taxpayers’ dollars–enables our farmers to sell corn more cheaply in Mexico than Mexican farmers can sell theirs. An estimated 3,000,000 Mexican farmers went bankrupt, causing desperate families, in order to survive, to cross our border to find work. One last fact: nations like Japan, with restrictive immigration policies, will in another generation have too few workers to support those who will retire. In our country, the children of these immigrants, “legal” and “illegal,” will be sustaining many us when we retire. Their children enter the full spectrum of jobs, blue collar and professional, further enriching our country. By the way, many “illegal” workers pay taxes and all of them purchase billions of dollars worth of goods, adding to the prosperity of our nation.
A solution to the immigration issue is complex. But rather than a patchwork of ineffective and self-defeating band aids, we should consider difficult but fundamental solutions. These would require international cooperation. As long as there are starving or poorly paid workers in the world, they will seek work to support themselves and their families. If these people had jobs at home, few would come here. In fact, a little publicized fact is reverse immigration: Mexicans and others do return to their home countries. There are many reasons; they include discrimination, low or unreliable wages as well as their longing for their homeland and families. What is needed is an international effort to improve living standards around the world, just as the industrial and commercial interests have their international policies to invest and make money. An investment in people will pay in the long run for our–and other nations’–prosperity. And we’ve done it before. After World War II, rather than punishing our enemies, we funded our Marshall Plan, which provided aid to Germany and Japan. Rather than their people fleeing the devastation of the war, they were able to rebuild and improve their lives at home. We need such international efforts to help people throughout the world for their and our mutual benefit.
As I consider my own family, with its recent immigrants as well as longtime residents (my grandson’s father is an Apache), we have much to gain by developing the means for all of us to prosper. Rather than our considering selfish and parochial solutions to the problems of immigration, which are self-defeating and impose hardships on others, we must realize that to survive as a species, with immigration as well as other global issues, we must consider that all of us are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. That is necessary not only for their survival, but ours as well.