El Sueño Americano (The American Dream)
Today I joined sea of Americans – many with official citizenship, some without – to celebrate America.
I find it impossible to convey in words the energy, passion and vitality of the uncountable hundreds of thousands standing shoulder to shoulder today on the National Mall in Washington, D. C., to say, "We are Americans, too! ¡Somos americanos!
Immersed in the present, I felt myself awash in the past:
At the dawn of a new century, fourteen year old Lorenzo and his brother Benjamin left their village of Paita, Peru, to work as a laborers aboard ships traveling about the South American coast. Within a year or two they worked together to build the Panama Canal, where illness claimed Benjamin’s life. Alone in the world, Lorenzo continued to do labor and engineering work aboard merchant ships, taking him to the Aegean, the Mediterranean and to Balitic states like Latvia and Estonia.
Many people who are not nativists or racists throw up their hands in confusion over immigration policy. None of the options discussed in the political arena represent good policy right now, and none will emerge while Republicans control either side of Capitol Hill. But if you want to learn all you need to learn about immigration policy, why it’s broken, and what sensible solutions would look like, check out this excellent short presentation taken from an event last week sponsored by the New Democratic Network. Suffice it to say that the regulation of immigration in a way consistent with American values has been effectively prevented by forces eager to see the creation of a second class of unprotected, disenfranchised American laborers on American soil. "¡No somos criminales!"
By his mid twenties, Lorenzo ended up in New York. When asked to served in the U. S. Army, he did so, thereby earning his citizenship. He met a nineteen year old beauty of a woman, originally from Puerto Rico, and married her. They settled in Brooklyn and had eight children, though the sixth died at age three. My mother was their seventh child. During World War II, Lorenzo became a neighborhood Civilian Air Patrol officer, tasked with making sure all lights were out during drills. I still have the ridiculously large, heavy steel helmet given to him as part of his duties. I look ridiculous in it, and my little brown grandfather with big ears must have been quite a sight when he wore it.
The Americans and undocumented Americans on the Mall today understand perfectly well that they are discriminated against, but they seek no unfair advantages. Though some are labelled as criminals by those who have rigged the immigration system against them in order to exploit them, they only want to work and build a better life for their children. Shouts of "¡Si se puede!" were puctuated by chants of "U. S. A! U. S. A!" They all know Tancredo and his ilk are racists. They see American racism every day, and intimately know its cotours, the smell of its breath, the curl of its lip. Here at FDL, we’ve done a lot in the last week to expose the racism that propels much of the American political right. The indispensible Steve Gilliard has more. "¡Un pueblo unido jamás será vencido!"
My grandfather, though uneducated, was wise. His world travels taught him not to judge anyone but by their individual actions. My mother, and all my aunts and uncles, pursued education after high school. At family gatherings during my youth, Grandpa always raised a glass in a toast to members of the family who had enjoyed notable successes since the last family gathering. A working man all his life, whose firm handshake scraped a boy’s palm like sandpaper, you could not encounter a man with a more civilized and gentle heart.
Anti-immigrant fervor tends to rise when economic insecurity abounds. American income inequality is at historic levels, and fat cats get fatter while working people tread water. The Republican party, riddled with weakness and undeniable failure, now stoke the old fires of racism, not only to deflect attention from its failures abroad, but also from the failures of our Reverse Robin Hood economy at home.
Enlightened immigration policy is a bread and butter progressive issue. As we protect all American workers, we protect standards of living, promote education, build a more sophisticated and internationally competitive workforce and end the race to the bottom in the domestic labor market that benefits big corporations in the short term at the expense of American strength and security in the long term. Even if you don’t share my degree of personal identification with today’s demonstrators, policies that support full citizenship rights for American workers are sane, smart and just. At the same time, we need to build real regulatory systems to monitor employers’ behavior and hiring practices. Building walls and sending people to foreign lands, on the other hand, destroys American families.
My grandmother and many of my cousins, aunts and uncles gathered in my grandfather’s ICU hospital room just after midnight on All Saints’ Day. At age fourteen, I held his hand as his life slipped away. He died peacefully and without pain, having lived a full and abundant life, not in material terms, but counting all the things that truly matter. Immigration and immigration policy is not about "them." It’s about us. It’s about our families. The picture below is of my grandparents at my cousin’s wedding, a year or two before my grandfather died. I have this picture on my bedroom shelf. I dedicate this post tonight to his memory, to the memory of my grandmother and to the many Americans I felt priveleged to join today in celebration of the American Dream.
Photo at top by Pachacutec.