What kind of America do you want to live in?
At the mouth of New York harbor, at the confluence of the Hudson and the Atlantic stands the tiny island of Ellis. This sandbar in the mouth of a tidal estuary might go unnoticed save the giant copper statue that adorns her, a modern-day Colossus standing athwart the harbor of America's greatest city. This statue is appropriately graced with the lines of a sonnet, penned by a Jewish American poetess in 1883... "The New Colossus"By Emma Lazarus
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door
At the base of this statue once stood the entry point through which millions of immigrants passed, their names changed seemingly at random into something that sounded 'more American'. But not all were subjected to this treatment. Some went around...
I can speak of one man who did not pass through those hallowed and infamous halls. He passed the statue hidden in a barrel in the hold of a ship, on which he had stowed away with the assistance of a friend. Thereafter he was nicknamed "Trommel" which means Barrel in the German dialect he spoke. This man disappeared into the rapidly industrializing heartland of America and eventually settled in Missouri.
So I sit with this man in mind as I listen to the debate rage around me on the subject of immigration. As I ponder the xenophobia and isolationism and try to separate it from the genuine fear of what lies 'over there' and how we are to keep it from coming 'over here'. I listen to the language that frames the debate. I can tell the person's leaning by their vernacular ere they ever voice an opinion. 'Illegal alien' is a message that invokes fear. 'Undocumented worker' is a message that implies that they had their documents a moment ago and merely misplaced them... The unallied speak a mishmash of both and the professionally unaligned (or perhaps misaligned) media waffles as it always does.They
come here and refuse to assimilate. They
don't speak our language. They
drive down wages and burden our schools and our health system. They
are an undocumented underclass doing jobs no American would do for a wage no American would accept. They
are the veritable serfs of the agri-business overlords, with no recourse to the law because they live beyond the law. A blight on our national conscience.They
cook our food, they
clean the hotel rooms and grow the vegetables and fruits that nourish our bodies. The sweat of their
low-wage brows keeps the price of our food low, their
toil means that even the poorest legal citizen can afford California oranges and Washington apples. They
are here, a genie out of the bottle and they will never go away.
won't assimilate! They speak their own language and won't learn ours." Trommel never spoke English within his own family. I think he eventually learned English, but in the kitchens and dining rooms they spoke German. They celebrated Sundays in their Lutheran churches, the sermons and hymns sung in their language. His children attended American schools and were treated by American doctors. They
learned to speak our language. And they were proud and loyal Americans.
Trommel and his family didn't assimilate to what they found in America, America assimilated to what they found in Trommel. From this illegal immigrant from Germany, America found the strong back and die-hard work ethic of the Teutonic peoples that spawned him. They found the warrior spirit that sustained him in an arduous sea voyage, self-incarcerated in the hold of a ship. And when America declared war on his homeland, they found him and his sons ready to take up arms and defend the ideal they came seeking. But they never assimilated.
"The times were different..."
Were they? I don't think they were. Nothing is new in what we are experiencing now. In the 1920's there was a terrorist bombing in the heart of Wall Street. Anarchists were the Al Quaeda of their time. We fought an endless war against the Huns that never really ended until Hitler died in his bunker and the Russians marched through the streets of Berlin in the 1940's. And in both wars, Trommel and his sons were there. The "Sedition Act" had the post office reading our mail. Roosevelt had us imprisoning loyal Japanese citizens without the benefit of habeas corpus
and Joe McCarthy had us looking under our beds for communists.
Tell me again how times are different? The names are strange, the tanks roll against an enemy without a uniform, but the fight hasn't changed. We're shadow-boxing with ghosts of our own creation, just as we did in the 20th century. Going to war with enemies we armed. Looking for an easy way to feel safe and secure in frightening times.
"At some point you have to turn off the tap or the melting pot overflows
"We're a nation of laws, no one should be allowed to break the law with impunity
Both of these are true. Both of these statements - if made in the interest of honest and earnest debate - would be perfectly viable positions to fortify and defend. But what really would the ramparts be built from save our own fears?
I look across this vast land and see a patchwork of fields and cities as diverse as the people who tilled their soil, planted the fence rows, built and worked the factories. I see a country that is the third most populous in the world but has the slowest rate of population growth of the top three. I see troubled storms on the horizon and I see a need for unity of purpose even if we retain our bickering, tumultuous political system. Real change is possible, real solutions are called for. It is possible that some of the solutions will be painful both for us and for the immigrants who are the grist in the millstones of our rhetoric.
As most of you have probably surmised already, Trommel was my great-great-grandfather. All of you come to this blog of your own free will, some of you week after week to see what I have to say. I have no idea why, but I try to make it worth your while. I hope to make you smile, or think, or think about smiling, and I hope that your lives are at least a little bit better for knowing me as I know mine is for knowing you.
Would your lives be better if Trommel had been sent back? The wars of the 20th century and the course of the industrial revolution would not have changed for the lack of one more German immigrant, but how would your
life be different if Scott
wasn't a part of it? The question sounds arrogant on my part, but I ask you simply to humanize the greater question that faces us. If your life is indifferent to my presence, my ego can take that. If you would miss having me around, but still think we need a wall between us and Mexico, I can respect that too. I have never sought to surround myself with only friends that agree with me. If I did, I would be a lonely man indeed. And I never ask of others what I do not already demand of myself. I can't and won't dissuade you from an informed decision I disagree with, but I cannot abide an uninformed one made out of ignorance and fear.
This debate will not end with this legislative session. It has been going on since before the first brick was laid on Ellis island. But it should be civil and it should be informed. It should be the sort of debate our children's children are glad we undertook and thus it should encompass all sides, and it should be a challenge we are willing and able to overcome or no true republic are we. Pulling the covers over our heads will not benefit us. And so shall we fade as past empires have faded down through the mists of time, prey to their own arrogance, torn apart by internal strife, victims of their own refusal to meet the challenges of the changing times.
Posted by scott-n-kristin
at 12:43 AM PDT
Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006 1:33 AM PDT