Friday, May 7, 2010

I come from the land of the ice and snow ... from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow

The musically erudite among us will instantly recognize the above as the first two lines of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" -- important, if for no other reason, because it contains the line that ended up being used as the title for the band's biography: Hammer of the Gods.

No, we're not going to talk about Led Zeppelin today ... though I suppose I could. ANd it would be very interesting reading too. I could talk about how much I hated them when the group first came out ... how my musical tastes, not to mention my knowledge of the blues from which many of Led Zep's songs were sprung, were not as finely tuned as they'd be later.

But it's a starting point for a topic that is just bugging me at the moment: immigration. Or, more to the point, undocumented (or, as some people just come right out and say, illegal) immigration.

First, let's acknowledge the problem. This is a huge issue in the United States at the moment, not just because the country has been forced -- by its inattentiveness to the problem as much as anything else -- to accommodates illegals ... and incorporate them into the fabric of our society.

I don't deny the issue. I just think blaming the so-called "illegals" while ignoring the whole other half of the equation is wrong.

I think of this issue and I think of cartoonist Walt Kelly, whose Pogo comic strip was a favorite of mine back in my college days. In one panel, a father and son are sitting on a branch, overlooking a completely littered, gutted landscape. The father says to the song, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

This is kind of how I feel about the illegal immigrant situation. First, I'm loath to call them "illegals," because, regardless of their status, they're human beings. And their presence in this country -- regardless of how inconvenient it is, or how much it outrages people -- requires them to be treated with the basic humanity they deserve.

This doesn't mean you don't try to sort the issue out. To me, the problem is exactly that: we've done anything but sort the issue out. We've allowed it to fester to the point where states like Arizona are taking it their own hands to clamp down on illegals by taking some pretty damn draconian measure ... actions that'll only further exacerbate a situation that's already tense, and growing more tense by the second.

It's just that until we sort it out, and however long it takes to sort out, can we please not lose sight of the fact that all people, by the common link of their humanity, deserve to be treated with some basic dignity?

I have no statistics ... and certainly no expertise on this issue. Personally, I think it's one of the bigger hornet's nests of the day ... more complicated than terrorism, more emotionally charged that abortion, and more volatile than whatever the stock market's doing on a given day.

It's complicated because not only are we experiencing the problem, we also have to own up to why we're experiencing the problem. People come here because they get -- or think they can get -- something they're not getting in their own countries. And while a lot of them aren't exactly models of industriousness, many of them are. They do work that many Americans -- even unemployed Americans -- consider beneath their dignity.

They may be a drain on the system, but they're also horribly, horribly exploited by American citizens who see in them a steady supply of cheap labor (precisely because they're willing to do jobs, and get paid less for them, than the average American who think it's beneath his dignity to do such labor).

Let's face some facts. Nobody would take the risks some of these "illegals" take if there wasn't some kind of a reward in it. It isn't just the risk of being caught and sent back. It's the risk of incurring the wrath of an ever-impatient country, many of whose citizens feel that the only solution is to round them up, en masse, and chase them back over the border.

I question how well that would work. My feeling is that would great an even bigger boondoggle than the one we're facing now, and I put it in the category of "be careful what you wish for."

I don't see a solution to this problem that doesn't include a national referendum.

I understand (though don't necessarily agree with) the feeling that states should be able to determine their own destinies, especially on issues that are geographically unique to them (I wonder, for example, whether there's a big a problem with illegals in Wyoming as there is in Arizona, Texas and California). That may be true in some cases, but not here. There needs to be a cohesive national policy that addresses the problem, outlines steps for dealing with it, and prohibits governors and state legislatures looking for political points from having the opportunity to roust innocent people because they make "look" like in illegal immigrant. This isn't an issue that's going to be resolved by playing to the cheap seats.

The biggest problem I see with the immigration issue isn't whether it gets resolved (though obviously it needs to be), but whether our demonization of all things foreign will reach the point where immigrants -- regardless of their status -- are seen through an increasingly uncompromising set of lens. It doesn't take a whole lot of reading history to unearth some major atrocities that can be traced directly to xenophobia.

This is what I fear most. And this is why I just can't seem to join in the chorus of condemning illegals -- even though there's much about the problem that's frustrating. I think sometimes, and especially in the face of divisive issues such as this -- we all have a responsibility to keep a lid on the hyperbole and do our best not to whip people into a frenzy.

Just flip the picture over and take a good look. What do you think terrorism is? How do you think people come to commit terrorist acts? They don't wake up one day and decide to hijack a plane, or plant bombs in their shoes and underwear. They're whipped up, orchestrated and choreographed by other people whose agendas have more to do with hatred than philosophy.

I'll bet you any amount of money that if you picked out a Nazi who operated a gas chamber at Auschwitz whether in, say, 1928 he had any abnormal hostility toward Jews, you'd have received an interesting response. That man, and so many others, had to have that hatred cultivated. It didn't just happen. Its seeds were planted, watered, and given an atmosphere to sprout.

This is my primary fear here. If we don't do something, now, to but the brakes on this situation, mark my words. It's going to turn real ugly.

You can see it already. How many of us completely lose patience because the guy at Dunkin Donuts, or a the dry cleaner's, or wherever, struggles with English? How many of us who get exasperated have stopped to consider how difficult it is to learn a new language, especially on the fly? How many of us have ever gone overseas and had the other shoe dropped on us?

And how many of us really know the levels to which said foreigner who's struggling with English has already risen? We don't. We make all kinds of assumptions ... and the law of averages says some of them are incorrect.

My fervent request here is that we tone the rhetoric and push our legislatures to solve this issue sensibly ... and that we have the patience to let them DO IT. Because it's going to take time. And I predict that the solution will not please everybody ... and maybe won't even please the majority of us ... because, honestly, I just don't think there's any physical way we can just "send them all back to where they came from."

No comments: