The Shame at America’s Borders

Yesterday on February 27th, the New Yorker published a piece about the ordeal of Mem Fox, a well-known Australian author of children’s books, who was coming to the US to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Wisconsin.

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Read the article. You should hear her own account of the events – but I suspect it doesn’t do justice to what Ms. Fox must have been feeling – and what all the other people must have been feeling – as they were detained, barked at, yelled at, bullied, and humiliated by “professional agents.”

“When asked for comment about Fox’s account, Jaime Ruiz, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at LAX, said,

“That is not how we treat passengers. We treat passengers with respect and professionalism. We have zero tolerance for passengers being treated unprofessionally.”

Well, Jaime, guess what – that’s how you *do* treat passengers. It happened. It was real. Any sort of statement or apology should include an assurance that steps will be taken to change things. Because it was not just Ms. Fox that was treated that way – it was an entire roomful of other human beings, many who did not even speak English and who don’t have the social status to get on the public radar.

The Greeks have a saying: “Η γλώσσα κόκαλα δεν έχει και κόκαλα τσακίζει” (The tongue has no bones, but it breaks bones.) Your dismissive statement will not heal the deep cuts to the spirit of this gentle lady, and all the other gentle ladies and gentlemen whom your agents treat with all the delicacy of a fourth-grade bully with his posse behind the school.

Another report at the Washington post states,

After returning to her home in Adelaide, Fox filed a complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and received a “charming” email in response. “I took it as an apology from all of America,” she says.

While I’m glad the embassy responded positively, and that the apology was well received, I have no doubt that the memory of the experience will never truly fade. One kind diplomatic functionary is good, but to eliminate this kind of abomination change must start at the top – because attitude rolls downhill. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the attitude at the top that is enabling this kind of jingoistic, xenophobic vileness.

Ms. Fox, I’m deeply ashamed by the actions of my government, and very sorry this happened to you.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Which America Do You Want?

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The above buttons represent sentiments that were commonly seen as bumper stickers during the Vietnam War era. The former was by far the most prevalent, but the latter could be seen on the vehicles of anti-war activists. Then, as now, political polarization was the rule rather than the exception.

Ever the bellwether of social trends (if only to make fun of them,) Mad magazine featured a recurring segment by Al Jaffee entitled “Hawks and Doves:”

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Tragically, the politics of the America that I have known (from Kennedy, who was the earliest president about whom I was old enough to care, to the present day) has been defined by the black-and-white fallacy. I recall my mother having said, “If Goldwater wins, we’re moving to Switzerland.”

The typical “love-it-or-leave-it” stance is epitomized in this song by Joyce Shaffer:

Now that’s a really catchy song, and she makes some good points about government transparency, money and special interests taking precedence over the voice of the people, and similar things – but it still sends a strong message: If you don’t agree with our philosophy, you are less-than and not welcome in this country, and you had best get out.
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These are my grandparents. They immigrated to this country in around 1900, came through Ellis Island, settled in the great metropolis of New York, and raised a family. They worked their butts off, and although they never were terribly successful at learning English, their kids went to school and did, and became honorable and productive members of this society, all the while injecting some wonderful Italian flavor into the world around them.
Wanderbuch Cover Page
This is the cover page from the Wanderbuch (sort of a hiking journal) of my wife’s great-grandfather, who was born in Bavaria and who came to this country in around 1850. My wife’s father spoke no German, so it’s a good bet that the descendants assimilated well, all the while bringing some German feelings, attitudes and philosophies to the general mix.
The thing about the many waves of immigrants that washed upon our shores is that they came to enjoy and appreciate the freedoms and opportunities that our land has to offer, and were not intent on re-making this nation in the image of the lands of their birth.
Immigration has not been without challenges, and I’ve written about some of the specifics before. Strict interpretation of the “love it or leave it” philosophy can lead to such atrocities as Japanese internment camps, which must never again be allowed to happen.

“Many who say “Love it or leave it,” are sincere. But their tersely stated ultimatum smacks of death not life. For if all who love America uncritically were to stay, and all who criticize America were to leave this nation, described by one of its founding fathers as “the world’s best hope,” would fast disappear.” – Dr. Ernest T.C. Campbell

That said, no group who has come to our country must ever be allowed to re-cast our basic laws and/or constitution to suit their particular ideology – any such attempt must be doomed to failure.

On the other side of the coin, America has changed since its inception. The founders had enough foresight to place into the Constitution a way of changing it, but it had to be a difficult way that made sure any changes reflected the will of the people. It’s not easy to get an amendment passed, but it has happened – and mostly for the good.

The Bill of Rights. Emancipation. Voting rights. And 24 others. Over time, change must happen or a nation stagnates.

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I firmly believe it’s time for our nation to move forward into the 21st century in spirit and not just in calendar date. There are far too many things still wrong in our country; unequal opportunity, the persistence of racism, over-militarization of police departments, a deeply entrenched culture of misogyny, and a continuing belief by those in power over our lives that fighting for “truth, justice, and the American Way” involves running roughshod over other nations to plunder their resources and subvert their cultures to our benefit.

The above clip is part of a show… how I wish it had been a real speech. And it’s not perfect, because it ignores the economic terrorism that was going on under our noses during the great period of history that was being referred to. But it brings up some critical points, and casts the harsh light of reason on areas where our country needs improvement.

Unadulterated “Love it or Leave It” implies a nation that works for only a very restricted subset of our population, and not for everyone. Rigorous “Change it or Lose It” fails to focus on the things that have made and continue to make our nation a desirable destination for many of the world’s citizens.

As with anything, we need to strike a balance:

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Those of us who have been blessed with American citizenship by birth, and those who seek to become members under that head, need to have a deep and abiding love for the Constitution of our land and the principles upon which it was founded. But we also need to take a hard look at our country and make a concerted effort to change the things that only work for a few and exert downward pressure on the many, all the while maintaining and defending those parts of our heritage that (in a positve way) set us apart for so long from the rest of the nations of the world.

Education is key. We need to raise new generations of people who are wanter/needer/finders, people who can look around at problems and say, “I can do something about that” and who truly have the skills to do it. In the meantime, I’m doing what I can.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

They, the builders of our nation.

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Found at the Facebook page of The Old Map Gallery in Denver, Colorado.

An inspiring work from a daughter of a calligrapher for the United States Treasury Department. Louise E. Jefferson is a fascinating figure that was a key part of the Harlem Artist Guild, author and mapmaker. Here her map for the many peoples that made the nation in the 1940’s

Our nation was built on the back of so many people, I find it surprising that a very small group of people are claiming this country as “theirs” and doing all they can to keep others out. This map is intriguing and historically revealing.

Against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

This past Thursday I had the honor of attending a naturalization ceremony for some friends of mine. Originally from the UK, they’ve been in the US for around 10 years or so with a green card, and last February they initiated the process for becoming a citizen. It was expensive, tortuous and byzantine, and they had to deal with the best and the worst of American career bureaucrats, but they persevered, and on Thursday they were sworn in as United States Citizens.

Despite being born of immigrant ancestors, this was the first time I have ever attended such a ceremony. It brought many feelings to the surface. My own paternal grandparents came to this country in around 1900 from Calabria and Tuscany, both in Italy. At some point they were naturalized, but I have no documentation; however, my grandfather’s brother became a citizen on October 2nd, 1925, and I managed to score a copy of his naturalization certificate:

Rafaelle Naturalization Certificate

 

The ceremony was solemn in nature, being an official session of court presided over by a federal judge, and was held in Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City.

Oath

 

Colors were posted, the Pledge of Allegiance was said, dignitaries spoke, and in the end, a court official administered the following oath to over 400 newly-minted Americans:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

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This process takes place every other month in Salt Lake… and is repeated on a regular basis in countless cities throughout the country.  Thousands of people who saw the lamp lifted beside the golden door, and came here searching for a better life than the ones they had in their countries of birth. Despite all its flaws and challenges and mistakes and foibles and inconsistencies, they wanted to be a part of this country and the ideals that it still, at some level, stands for: freedom, a vote, and the opportunity to do with their lives what they will. At the end of the ceremony, microphones were passed to a few of the new citizens, and they expressed their feelings; the speakers came from Egypt, Mexico, Guatemala, Russia, Congo, Pakistan, Mongolia, the United Kingdom, and over 30 other nations were represented in the body of applicants. Each one expressed gratitude for their newly-conferred freedoms, and the fact that even though they were the nation’s newest citizens, they were in every respect equal to those who lived here since 1776.

It was an odd mixture of feelings. The ceremony was designed to be patriotic in nature, but patriotism seemed out of place in that gathering – it was more a coming home. I reflected on my own immigrant ancestors, and millions like them who left their natal shores to embark on often perilous journeys to an unknown land, a land about which they knew little other than stories. They came, and were processed through Ellis Island and other centers on other shores. They lived, worked, and died, and in so doing they became a part of this country and its history.

Now we are faced with another immigrant question – the fate of 11 million immigrants who came to this country another way, through porous borders. Often their journey was no less perilous, and often moreso – many have died in the attempt. Their reasons for coming have been no less elevated – they sought a better life in a country of opportunity when their own country offered them nothing but poverty, or oppression, or death. But they didn’t come through Ellis Island, and they didn’t follow the rules. And now we have to figure out what is to be done with them, and their families, some of whom have been here for multiple generations.

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If we as Americans want to continue enjoying cheap, abundant produce, we need these laborers – and this is only one small sector of our economy where immigrants figure significantly. But if we are to honor the dedication and sacrifice of those who entered our country and came through the front door, as did my ancestors, as did my friends last Thursday, providing a streamlined path to citizenship for those who did not follow the laws seems like an intolerable slap in the face. For these people there must be a path to citizenship provided, but not one that disrespects those who came here and became citizens under due process of law. Quoting Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, “There should be a pathway to citizenship – not a special pathway and not no pathway. But there has to be a legal, lawful way to go through this process that works, and right now it doesn’t.”

It is not an easy decision, because we’re dealing with multiple generations of people – many of whom were born in this country. I don’t support blanket amnesty, but I don’t support throwing all these people out on their ear either. We must keep working to find balance between honoring the law and being both human and humane.  The congressional debate continues.

For those who received their naturalization certificates last Thursday, whatever Congress decides will have little impact other than the one that illegal immigrants cause on the overall economy, an economy of which they are now part and parcel as fully-recognized, taxpaying citizens. These I honor especially, for the efforts they made to become part of our nation in the duly appointed way. To these new Americans, I wish all the prosperity and security that they worked so hard to obtain. This is no less than I wish for our undocumented aliens, but I want them to obtain it the same way as my friends and my ancestors did.

The Old Wolf has spoken.