Monday, March 3, 2008

Illegal and Legal Immigrants – Any Difference?

The tangled issue of "illegal immigrants" is easily put to one side by a Yankee, raised in Massachusetts, worked in New Hampshire, summered and retired in Maine. My childhood and teenage years were spent in Boston, where as "modern" as 1945, our senior prom at a pretty nice Boston hotel banned any black persons in our class. We switched hotels, because Bart Branch was our basketball captain. Black was the only off-white color noticeable around town. Greeks were a bit swarthy. Italians had that Latin look. The French had cigarettes in the corners of their mouths all the time, the smoke masking the pale – oh! so pale coloring of those near the Seine. As for the British, they wore spats and carried umbrellas. Their white was a haughty one. In the working years, both NH and ME had tiny, tiny populations of off-white coloring. We were Anglo-Saxon-Franco-Germanic-other European Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Agnostics, Atheists and some descendants of the original Yankees, a/k/a Puritans, whom we had elevated to a kind of superclass royalty off The Mayflower, even though they were perhaps the most intolerant Americans our country has yet endured.

But, but, but, we were all, almost all, white. Tons of us were the first born of immigrants – both Mom and Dad came from Prince Edward Island, Canada, just an overnight trainride away, no long boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean. I remember both parents studying for their citizenship exams. And then, they were able to say, "Civis Americanus sum," borrowed with adjustments from Saint Paul himself. No immigrant he, just a wandering apostle, a roaming Catholic. Actually, surrounded by five immigrant Canadian aunts, a couple of uncles and a bunch of Roman Catholic cousins, we thought we were much more American than them high falutin' Mayflowerites and the Silk Stocking Yankee crowd up on Beacon Hill.  We were Irish, too, fundamentally so, and that brings up a completely different sort of intolerance and clannishness, doesn't it. Once banned and barred from jobs in Boston, the Irish had overcome. By the time I was 5 years old,we not only ran the town, police, fire, mail, schoolteachers, priests, bishops, cardinals, etc., we owned it. Era? 1930s, 1940s.

Then at 25, I went off to Tokyo. Not a member of an occupation army, but worse, a Jesuit infiltrator, I knew what it was to be an immigrant, albeit legal, an easily spotted one, who stood out in any crowd with my blue eyes, white skin, awkward posture and attitude,  all of which proclaimed loudly that I was no native, probably an American. A fellow on the train saw me reading La Bible de Jérusalem, and asked, "Furansujin, desu ka? – You French?"  I almost said, "Oui," but stupidly it came out,"Si," and he turned away. We "gaijins – foreigners" got pushed off sidewalks, were shoved out of crowded trains, knew little of the famed Japanese courtesy, until we learned it was reserved for those they knew personally. No stranger need apply.

I got a small taste of what current "illegal immigrants" go through in the America of postmodern times. When I spoke Japanese to a ruffian, politely but firmly telling him to back off, my voice and accent was that of a Japanese college student – the men in the dorms taught me how to street talk like one of them – and suddenly, there was much deep bowing, many expressions of regret and apology and a kind of  coronation ceremony when the bad guy announced  to all, "He's a sensei – honored professor."  It was almost, but not quite, as if he had said Americanishly, 'It's OK. He's one of us."  So  easy to get along, fit right in, if you know the words, no matter the color of your skin and eyes. No fakery involved either.

The ire seen in newspapers, heard on Cable TV, seems to be based on color, any color off-white, be it black, tan, coffee, oriental yellow (their white) and is directed mainly southwards, but oddly not eastwards to Spain, whence those immigrants' immigrant forebears came from. When I hear "illegal immigrants," I know they are talking about Mexicans, Columbians, Puerto Ricans (they American citizens?) any kind of South Americans. Europeans aren't a source of "illegal immigrants," nor is Ireland, Russia, China, India, Japan (we're a bit ashamed of the imprisonment of Japanese American citizens after Pearl Harbor was bombed by their relatives.) The Irish, a little over a century after being treated like trash, now furnish some leaders to those patriotic red, white and blue Americans smoting the "illegals," the postmodern trash. We always have to have some group to  beat up on, don't we? To blame for our bad luck in life, usually a foreign group that consensus agrees is beneath us, not worthy to tie our sandal straps.

Kind of funny, too, that we treat Native Americans, copper-skinned, as real Americans, autochthonously so to speak, not just as one of us, but as a kind of royal ancestor who saved the land for us. Which we promptly took away without asking politely first. To hide our shame, we gave them poor land, called it "Reservation" and herded them inside to stay out of sight, out of mind. They knew they were"legal" though and were and are patient, so patient, that we are beginning to look on them as ancestors, forebears, seeing something definite in their culture that is American, far more authentic than our own potpourri slatherings on from all the countries of Europe and Asia. Africa doesn't count, you know. On the grey scale, they're way out on the far end of black, and somehow that just isn't another hue of white or off-white. Besides, Civil Rights is being won by them, slowly, but being won.

Well, Mom and Dad were immigrants. White ones. May have been "illegal" for all I know.  But got sworn in and were able to vote. Most of the parents on our street were immigrants, too. We were a happy crowd. And now, our children aren't so happy and are yelling a lot about drivers' licenses, language spoken as a native tongue, taking menial jobs, making sure we keep America "free and legal" while assuring there are enough "illegal immigrants" to wait on us, do our housekeeping, run errands, clean up the streets, pick up the garbage and then go back where they came from, provided they send their children here to take their places.

But then again, and again, I'm a Yankee from Maine, where I couldn't tell a Mexican from a native, and always kept my own head down, lest I heard a real Yankee say, "Him, that porky guy, he's from away." I'm not a resident of Los Angeles, or Taos, NM, or even a small town in Arizona, where vigilantish saviors of democracy want a few hundred miles of fencing erected real soon. Thinking of my own ancestors, I wonder why the drumbeat for the fence is not  so loud between us and Canada. Maybe, because it would be a much longer one, about 3000 miles from the Pacific to the Atlantic, not just a wittle one from Baja California to the Gulf of Mexico. Cost a few billion. And Canadians are the same color as us, blend in easily, never look "illegal."

Thus, no reason for me to pop off here on this issue. Not much to say or recommend, except a few little things about the Statue of Liberty. I'm kinda close to immigrants in my own family, and was one myself for three years in Japan. Being from the Northeast, I've never had much trouble with other immigrants, and here in Colorado, I'm beginning to notice some antipathy towards people  who speak Mexican-Spanish and wear baggy clothes.

If the ruckus continues, I think we should take down the Statue of Liberty, disassemble it carefully, because it was a thoughtful gift, and put it in storage or give it back to France. What is remarkably noteworthy is that the lady's face was originally a copper hue, almost the same color as the skin of those sneaking in from south of the border. Over the years, her face and hands have taken on a patina, as only copper can do, so she is now green. Wonder how we'd react to green illegal immigrants. Could spot them more  quickly, I suppose.  Anyone know her name?  Lazarus gave her one in the poem below, Mother of Exiles. Kind of sad, isn't it?

At the very least, before we build those fences, we should have the integrity to go inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and melt down that bronze plaque inscribed with the poem "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus. It's a brazen lie now, like so much else of America, which seems to be imitating the empire of ancient Rome in a slow but steady fall and decline. Some of us wonder whatever happened to our Church. Have we ever asked, Whatever happened to our country?  

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

1 comment:

Mary Jo Comerford said...

I appreciate your "musings" on who and what constitutes an immigrant. We are certainly showing our true colors, aren't we? Also appreciate your Irishness.

Blessings from a 67 yo midwesterner living just inside the boundaries of THE CHURCH, which was better as an "immigrant" church which at least had some chutzpah and integrity.