The Personalist Project

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Accessed on November 23, 2017 - 12:09:07

Immigration: Beyond Knee Jerks

Devra Torres, Aug 25, 2017

My friend, Rebecca Ryskind Teti, offered the following observation on Facebook recently:

Words that make my heart absolutely ache: "This is not a free country," spoken by a Salvadoran immigrant who was replacing our disposal and hooking up an ice maker. He's a neighbor who makes his living doing all kinds of odd jobs and repairs, each class of which requires a separate certification or license, each of which has to be renewed relatively frequently and with hefty fees, and many of which involve skills not dangerous enough to be worth licensing -- the state's just making $$ off him and people like him, and competitors are making the bar for entry into the market high. Here is an honest man who came here honestly (under asylum), who has valuable skills and is unafraid to work hard, and he is learning the opposite lesson of the one we want immigrants to learn -- that this a noble and free country, where honesty and hard work pay off.

She continues:

This is what Pope Francis means when he talks about economies that exclude the poor from the circles of exchange rather than inviting them in. That kind of "welcome," in addition to being inherently unjust, is not likely to turn immigrants into lovers of their new country.

I think it's worth talking about because, for one thing, it avoids two particular assumptions: that immigrants are lazy and ungrateful, and "the more regulation, the better."

When I shared Rebecca's words, my friend and fellow TPP writer Kate Cousino said it reminded her of "Let America Be America Again," by Langston Hughes, which begins: 

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

He continues in the same vein, mourning the way the promise of America never lived up to the legend, at least not for a lot of people, and hoping against hope that it will someday:

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.

Or anyway, he looks to the day when such things become real--maybe not in any earthly political future.

I think his view's too dark. Easy for me to say, right? But my mother-in-law came from El Salvador (just like the man who installed Rebecca's ice maker). She worked as a hat-check girl, then an accountant. My father-in-law, from the Dominican Republic, took a job at the post office (he was accepted at Columbia University, but there wasn't scholarship money for him in those days). They married, and she surprised him one day with a down payment for a house (she'd been secretly saving up her housekeeping money). They settled down and raised two children, whom they sent to Harvard and Yale.

My great-grandfather came from a shtetl somewhere around Kiev to New York, where he manned a pushcart, selling a few tools. The pushcart morphed into a full-blown store, Boro Park Hardware, which lasted for decades, supporting and employing Pop Pop, his descendants, and many others over the years. I remember relatives of my grandparents' and great-grandparents' generation telling us over and over, "This is the greatest country in the world."

I don't by any stretch mean to say that the excluded, then or now, are to blame, or that American was perfect in the old days. My family's Jewish and Latin forbears had plenty to put up with, but it's not as if they would have fared better under the Czar or in the countries they'd fled.  Then and now, in America and (let's not forget) in every country on the face of the earth, too many people are excluded from the circle of exchange. Then and now, overly comfortable politicians and business moguls have made an industry of exploiting immigrant labor. These days they may feign more concern for the human dignity of the laborers, but they're as indifferent as ever to the fate of any handyman and his family.

Fittingly enough, this post has no happy, snappy ending. Our best hope, I guess, is to stop jerking our knees in unison with our political allies and attend a lot more closely to how our intentions, even our good ones, play out in the lives of people like Rebecca's neighbor.