April 7, 2020

A Little Humanity

By Stephen Tuttle | July 14, 2018

The truth is, we've never much liked immigrants. This “nation of immigrants” was skeptical almost from the beginning. And, so far, we've never had a president or Congress able to craft an immigration system that works.

George Washington wasn't sure we needed any more immigrants at all. Benjamin Franklin was concerned too many Germans were arriving in the New World.

(There was already a different kind of immigration occurring in parts of the country, immigration of the completely involuntary sort. But slaves didn't count as people or immigrants, they counted as property.)

We've since gone through a long list of immigrants we didn't like coming here, legally or otherwise. Italian, Irish, Polish, Jews, Catholics — we found reasons to distrust or dislike all of them, oftentimes in heinous ways.

We imported Chinese labor to do the backbreaking work of clearing routes and laying track for our first western railroads. Then we kicked them out of the country. California even tried to make it illegal to even be in the state if you were Chinese. 

The nativism movement — basically saying anybody already here deserves more than those just arriving — started well before the Civil War. Nativists opposed all immigration and are the seeds that sprouted some of today's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Then there was eugenics, the idea of creating improved humans by selective breeding of people with desirable traits. Unfortunately, all of those desirable traits seemed to occur in western Europeans, so we had another wave trying to discourage immigrants from anywhere else. 

In the early 1900s, still a mostly agrarian society, we did invite European immigrants to fill the blue collar jobs needed for our move into the Industrial Age. New industries were happy to watch them come through the turnstiles at Ellis Island even as many people already here were not. 

Then we turned our attention south instead of east. We were fine with migrant workers who came seasonally and did the dirty work of harvesting in the fields and orchards. We even had treaty agreements with Mexico, like the ill-fated Bracero Program, designed specifically to bring in unskilled,, temporary labor workers. 

But some stayed behind and found more permanent work. Many others started coming illegally. We didn't much like that, and they were an easy target from the start: They looked different, spoke a different language, and could usually be found doing the most miserable jobs.   

During the Eisenhower Administration we decided there were just too many darned Mexicans here, legally and illegally, so we created the offensively named Operation Wetback. That's actually what is was called. And we strongly encouraged those of Mexican descent, even American citizens of Mexican decent, to head on back to Mexico. And nearly a million did. 

Ronald Reagan went the amnesty route, coupled with stronger enforcement, and that didn't achieve much. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush talked of increased enforcement and floated legislative plans but without much result.

Barack Obama, for all the accusations that he was soft on illegal immigration, actually forcibly deported more illegal immigrants than all previous presidents combined. Immigration activists derisively referred to him as the Deporter-in-Chief. He attempted to find some common ground at least for those who had been brought here illegally as children but that has now been undone.

Rational immigration solutions have again slipped our grasp. Politicians have successfully turned illegal immigrants into villains, and even legal immigrants into objects of suspicion.

There is nothing illegitimate about favoring the enforcement of immigration laws. But the current zero tolerance policy, poorly conceived and designed, has done little but create chaos.

The separation of families, which happened sparingly in other administrations, has been carried out indiscriminately and coldly. Children have been left in detention for long stretches with neither parents nor advocates.

These children, some as young as one, end up in Immigration Court. There is no requirement that legal counsel be provided for them. In fact, there is no requirement they have any representation at all. The judge, as is protocol, is supposed to ask them if they understand the proceedings. As absurdities go, it's very near the top of the list.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for these kids, doesn't even know how many there are, though they're pretty sure it's somewhere between 100 and 1,000. They also don't know where their parents now are. The federal courts ordered all families be reconnected by last Monday, July 9. HHS reported they had reunited 38 families.      

We like to lecture the rest of the world about their moral shortcomings, always ready to offer some constructive criticism of somebody's human rights record. Meanwhile, we've created a dystopian nightmare in which toddlers, separated from their parents and unable to speak our language, are sent to court on their own. 

Even zero tolerance requires a little humanity.  


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