Saturday, October 04, 2003

Huddled Masses and a Confession from the Freedom Rider

Today the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride culminated in a rally held in New York City. On September 20th more than 1,000 immigrant workers and their supporters boarded buses in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, Miami, Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston and made their way to New York. Along the way they advocated for equal legal rights for immigrants, improvements in labor protection, the granting of legal status to immigrants already in the country, and streamlining immigration procedures to guarantee a swifter citizenship process.

I knew about the IWFR project but I confess that I had mixed feelings about it. Of course having named my blog Freedom Rider I felt a connection to the events of 1961 that helped lead to the end of segregation in American society. But I also have to confess an inexplicable yet unmistakable case of xenophobia when I first heard about this effort.

"Who told them to come here? If they don't like it they should go back to their own countries. Why are they using my history to name their event?" My narrow minded and less than enlightened thoughts went on in that vein. I was surprised by my reaction because I have always recognized the benefits of immigration. I revel in the energy and excitement that come from living in a city whose inhabitants are from every inhabited corner of the world. Often I sit on the subway and marvel at my fellow passengers reading newspapers in Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and other languages I don't recognize.

There are also practical benefits to immigration for native born Americans. One-third of New York City residents were born outside of the United States. If it weren't for immigration and the resulting population growth New York state would lose more congressional seats and the electoral votes that go with them. All Americans benefit by having more workers support the social security system. But let's not the forget the most important issue. New York finally has good Mexican food.

I think that my reaction was based on feelings of nationalism and the lack of compassion that results from living in a country with no safety net. Black Americans have often felt that immigrants were competitors for jobs and government assistance. It also doesn't help that American racism spreads its hateful message around the world. Many immigrants arrive in the United States with preconceived negative attitudes towards black people. Some of these immigrants are elites in their societies and not "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It is difficult not to be resentful when people who don't even speak English arrive here and prosper within a short period of time while the doors of opportunity remain shut to those of us whose ancestors began arriving on these shores in the 1600s.

Because American society does not help its citizens unless they fall into the worst depths of poverty we live in a state of fear of the unknown and resentment towards anyone we think is getting a break. We know that if we lose our jobs we lose our health insurance. We know that working and paying taxes all our lives isn't taken into account when we fall victim to some unexpected misfortune and require government help. This harshness can make us unsympathetic to the needs of others. It is true that we end up paying for the health care costs incurred by indigent immigrants. But we spend far more on health care for poor Americans who have no health insurance. The issue is a lack of health insurance coverage for all, not the cost of providing care to immigrants.

In thinking about my response I realize that there are fundamental issues of fairness involved. There are industries in the United States that are completely reliant on immigrant labor. Even the poorest Americans don't want to pick apples in Washington State. Politicians hypocritically tell voters they oppose immigration but then pass laws to insure a supply of immigrant labor for certain industries.

American foreign and economic policy is also responsible for immigration. We subsidize American farmers and in doing so make it difficult for foreign farmers to make a living. The result is poverty around the world which of course leads to more immigration. I had a neighbor from Jamaica who told me how lonely and unhappy she was when she first came to the United States. But she came because she felt forced to do so by the lack of opportunity in her homeland. Let us not forget that support of oppressive regimes around the globe leads to a desire by those oppressed people to make a better life for themselves. Our support of the Duvaliers in Haiti is but one example of American foreign policy encouraging immigration.

Of course, when speaking of American history bad karma will always rear its head. I find it amusing when Americans in the southwest complain about immigration. However, the United States started a war with Mexico in 1846 and ended up grabbing half of its territory. Present day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and portions of Wyoming were all ceded to the United States by Mexico when the war ended. The new immigrants aren't coming to a new country at all but are returning to their homeland.

I should also mention that Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was one of the original Freedom Riders who were attacked by a mob in Anniston, Alabama in 1961. The Congressman is a strong supporter of the goals of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Short Take

"What this says to me is that too many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales. Too many whites are getting away with trafficking in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out of jail because we're not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too."

Who made this statement?
(a) Jesse Jackson
(b) Michael Moore
(c) Rush Limbaugh

The answer is (c). El Rushbo talked tough about sending white drug abusers to jail in an October 5, 1995 broadcast. I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I agree with Rush. White drug abusers should go to jail more often. I certainly hope he meant what he said.