Say What?

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Professor Kenya Dworkin
Department of Modern Languages
Carnegie Mellon University

The current debate about illegal immigration is a hot topic bound to drive much of the rhetoric leading up to the next presidential election, particularly because it seems as though the war against illegals in the U.S. (who are often made out to look like terrorists) might be more easily won than the war overseas or the war on drugs. It is therefore far too easy (but inexcusable) for the American electorate and its aspiring politicians to blithely spread about ignorant stories about illegal immigrants, particularly Mexicans, who supposedly come to this country to get anything they can from it without giving anything back. Nothing could be further from the truth, as history teaches us.

If we include the African slaves, Chinese coolies, Filipinos, indentured servants, disenfranchised Californios, Tejanos, and Native Americans among those people traditionally considered to have built this country (white northern, western, and eastern European immigrants), then it is indeed possible to say that the United States was built by immigrants. Any student of U.S. expansionism knows that among the the people who built this country one must include those who lived in lands acquired by the U.S. through aggression and illegal means - New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, to name a few. So, should we consider the people in these places who did not actually "in-migrate" but were swallowed up by this country immigrants, too?

All the same, it is one thing to build a country and quite another to write its history. The history of this country has been and continues to be written primarily by the descendants of the British and protestants, the historical victors in the American experiment (at least til now), those who enjoyed and continue to reap the spoils of this particular chapter of human history. This might explain the tenor and parameters of the current debate about illegal immigration.

A cursory review of U.S. immigration history would provide some much needed context to the current political brouhaha. The year 1924 brought with it quotas based on national origin, yet throughout large parts of the 20th century, the U.S. created special programs to invite certain foreigners (e.g., Mexicans) to come here to do very necessary work. That practice (and immigration laws) may have changed since 1965, but the need for the workers has not. So instead of focusing on the illegality of certain immigrants, why not work toward adjusting current policies to fit actual reality - a current and continued need for immigrant labor?

Finally, since the immigration debate being argued (and fueled) in the context of American national integrity and security is primarily anti-Mexican, and reveals what seems to be a sense of mainstream American entitlement to this land, a review of the founding history of this place would shed some light on what appears to be a very unenlightened perspective. We should not ever forget that Spanish settlers came here nearly 100 years before the Pilgrims; that Spanish and Roman Catholicism were the first European language and religion here; that the first "Thanksgiving" dinner celebrated by Europeans and native peoples occured near St. Augustine, Fla., between Spaniards and native Floridians, 75 years before the one that is officially celebrated; that the first printing press came here from Spain via Mexico and not from England or Germany; and that the first European chronicle of exploration in what is now the continental United States was written and published by a Spaniard, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in 1542, in Spain. Thus, people of Hispanic origin are not and have never been strangers in this land. In fact, they have been here since before most of our ancestors -- and they have never left. Over the years, only the borders, laws, and attitudes have changed. So why not also change our immigration laws (yet again)? Here’s to a sensible and humane immigration policy.