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Our Land

We sat around the dinner table one Friday night, my family, my parents, my brother’s family, and aunts, uncles, cousins.  Over the years we’ve learned to try and stay away from the really hot topics, but on that night immigration, the so-called “illegal” variety, somehow surfaced.  As a family, we all share common origins: a group of modern American Jews whose ancestors left Eastern Europe 80 to 100 years ago, sailing in ships with few possessions, arriving in American harbors, announcing their names, and in the blink of an eye being granted official, legal citizenship by gendarmes who themselves were probably of recent immigrant lineage.  Still, despite this benign treatment, some members of my family, and one in particular announced their opposition to the current crop of immigrants from Latin America.

Humans first came to this continent, this hemisphere around 15,000 years ago, probably during the last Ice Age.  15,000 years may sound like a lot, but it’s not – humans populated Africa, Asia, Europe all for 100,000 years.  Of the major populated continents, only Australia has been populated by humans for less time than the Americas.

The most common theory is that the original Americans appear to have come from Asia, and arrived here via a massive frozen glacier, an ice bridge, that at the time linked Alaska and Siberia.  From that original trek, humans spread throughout: across the North American plains to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, down through the tropical climes of central America, and ultimately throughout the vast jungles, mountains, and plains of South America - from the tip of the ice bridge to the tip of South America.  There are theorists who posit other ideas – that humans crossed in boats from Asia, for example – but they too nevertheless envision a small band that gradually spread across the hemisphere.

No one asked the original immigrants to show their papers, and no one made them citizens.  The hemisphere was wide open.  The cultures of future native Americans derived from those original immigrants, and over 10,000 years the traditions, industry, agriculture, and histories of the Sioux, Maya, Aztec, Incas, and so many more emblazoned their impacts on the land.  Those cultures claimed the land, and made it theirs.

In 1492, the first Europeans arrived in the hemisphere and immediately called the land theirs.  They came with their own culture and technologies.  Their culture made little if any allowance for the validity of those that they found here, and their technologies and diseases decimated natives.  That eradication has been so rapid and so complete in many places, especially here in North America, that many, and probably most, descendants of the Europeans, don’t even blush when stating that the land is theirs, and pledging their patriotism to a place to which their fathers and mothers came at most two hundred years ago, and many far less recently, as did mine.  With natives dead or confined to reservations, there is not much here to remind the Europeans that they are relative newcomers.

Feeling for the land is a function of the mind and heart.  The real issue in immigration, of course, is control.  And yet few Americans are willing to state that their current opposition to additional newcomers is based upon their control of the land; instead, they tend to point to their law books and their patriotism.  Proper historical readings are almost absent from the debate, since the “right” to the land does not hold up very well in the context of the history of the treatment of natives.  There have even been takings of European land by other Europeans, for example, in the Mexican War.  And yet despite this dubious historical episode, modern Americans even state that modern Mexicans have no right to achieve legal citizenship, work for low wages, and live in areas that were forcibly taken from their ancestors by the ancestors of their employers.

Whenever I am at my ranch, there are always at least a few minutes when I find myself wondering: “Is this really my land?  Whose land is it?  If it’s mine, what made it possible for me to acquire it?  Something I did?  The property laws of the United States of America?  How did it occur that this land came under those laws?  Whose laws, if any, was it subject to before the current ones?  Under what conditions would it cease to be mine?”  The issue of immigration is inextricably intertwined with the issue of land, and all of the issues that are concomitant with it, including the issue of nation.  Those who oppose poor migrant workers fervently go all the way back to their beloved Founding Fathers, whether named Columbus, or Washington, or Houston, in expounding their patrimony and their stated right to enforce it.  The great irony is that if they were to go back just a bit further, in some cases back just a few more years, they would find in the historical record that that their founding fathers and mothers were immigrants who literally took this land, sometimes using force, cunning, and unequal strength of arms, from the descendants of that small band that crossed the Alaskan land bridge.

And if you look closely at the faces of those in our factories, construction sites, of those pressed into immigration jails, indeed of those working in our own kitchens, you too will see the descendants of the land bridge: Asiatic in color and appearance, they are the blood descendants of natives, and if you have any shame, you would acknowledge that they have as much right as anyone to be here.

A few weeks ago George Lakoff spoke here and was asked about the immigration issue.  He responded that most immigrants to this country live very stressed economic lives, and that the poorest 25% of our population enables the other 75% to live very well, with clean homes, child care, and other cheap services.  We should, in Lakoff’s view, express only gratitude to those who come to this country, legal or not, for the enhanced economy that their cheap wages allow.  Instead, many Americans loudly and shamelessly excoriate immigrants while at the same time accepting the economic benefits that they accord.

At dinner that night with my family, it dismayed me greatly to listen as one of my family members, someone only a few decades removed from immigrant status themselves, made statements against today’s immigrants.  My family members are in this country because 100 years ago my ancestors bravely boarded ships to escape economic and racial hardships, and availed themselves of liberal US government immigration policies designed to bring people from Europe to populate the growing cities and factories, and to settle the interior of the continent that had just been taken from natives by the US government, its Army, and its citizens.  During my own lifetime, the southwestern part of the United States, states like Texas, California, and Arizona, has experienced a period of similar rapid growth.  But in my lifetime, conservative US government policy has failed to make sufficient legal room for today’s brave, oppressed immigrants living not an ocean away, but just to the south of the national border.  And even though they seek to come, and have come, for the same economic benefits for which my own ancestors themselves came and automatically received citizenship, both the government and the citizenry treat them differently.  Where my own ancestors were allowed to enter a legal process that ultimately led to my own attendance at the nation’s finest schools, today’s immigrants are forced to arrive and work surreptitiously, in the shadows. 

It is time that those who heap vitriol on immigrants, get some back themselves.  That night at dinner, I made a start of it.  By the time dessert came, served of course by our longtime El Salvadoran housekeeper, I left no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was actually I who felt most strongly about the issue of immigration.  And though I doubt I changed any minds that night, I’m pretty sure I made clear that I would have no truck with the hypocrisy of modern American immigrant bashing.

I’m Leo Gold.  This is The New Capital Show.

Posted on Mar 28 by Registered CommenterLEO GOLD | CommentsPost a Comment | EmailEmail | PrintPrint