I am not an immigrant, but like almost all of us in this country today, I am descended from immigrants. My ancestors are from Eastern Europe. Some came here fleeing pogroms and conscription into the Czar’s army, while others merely came here for better economic opportunity. I am Jewish, but like the majority of Jews in the USA, my ancestors came here before Hitler’s Holocaust ravaged Europe. I know that many people like myself, who are Jewish, usually white, and often economically privileged, are expressing fears of what Trump’s presidency means for Jews in the United States, especially in light of the Nazis marching in Charlottesville a few weeks ago. I will posit, however, that this fear is misplaced. What we need to be doing is focusing on the plight of undocumented immigrants right now, rather than worrying about what theoretically might happen to our own security in the future.
Of course, we all know that the USA has a problem with hostility toward immigrants. This is especially ironic in Rhode Island, which is home to so many people of Southern-European descent. It is only in recent years that Italian, Portuguese, Armenian, and Greek Americans have been fortunate enough to to be sheltered under the aegis of white privilege. When you ask people who are hostile to immigrants how they can accept this obvious doublethink contradiction, they inevitably respond that their ancestors were different. They assimilated. They learned English right away and never needed interpreters or bilingual services. They came here legally.
This is, of course, bunk. Any photographs of American immigrant neighborhoods in the early 20th century will feature shop signs in foreign languages, naturally staffed by shopkeepers who spoke the language of the clientele they catered to. Examples in American literature also abound of unassimilated, non-English-proficient immigrants, from Nelson Algren’s evocative depictions of Polish-American street youth having knife fights in alleys, to Henry Roth’s semi-autobiographical novel Call it Sleep, which features a Ukrainian-Jewish family matriarch whose English is so infamously poor that she cannot intelligbly pronounce the name of the street on which she lives. It is also untrue that immigrants to the United States are unwilling to learn English, and it is flat-out mythical that American-born descendants of immigrants fail to learn English. According to a Pew Research poll, in 2014, 37 percent of Latino households in the USA—that’s more than 1/3—spoke only English, no Spanish at all, at home. That is up from 30 percent in 2000. The percentage of non-Spanish-speaking American Latinos is growing.
As far as the legal status of our immigrant ancestors, the restrictions on immigration at the turn of the 20th century were very lax. Anyone who wasn’t seriously ill or a wanted criminal was welcome. This is no longer the case. Our immigration system has become more restrictive and more complicated, to the point where we are on the verge of creating a labor shortage by not letting in enough immigrants to do needed labor, even as our population ages. Moreover, legal documentation was a much fuzzier issue in previous generations than it is now, so much so, that when my own great-grandmother was unable to secure passage to the United States, she simply immigrated to Canada and walked across the border. That’s right, guys, I’m descended from an undocumented immigrant, and there are a lot of us who can say the same, even if our ancestors have been in this country for 100 or more years, as mine have.
The most insidious part of anti-immigrant sentiment, though, is how it demonizes immigrants. To hear the xenophobes tell it, immigrants come to this country with the express desire to destroy its very essence and remake it in the form of their home countries which they’ve left. In reality, immigrants are doing the most natural and instinctive thing that all humans do: they are looking for a better life for themselves and their children. Who among us can say that we wouldn’t do the same? If faced with a country in which people couldn’t find the opportunity to succeed or even to subsist despite hard work and ability, how many of us would consider moving to another place where our children could have a better life? Or where we could make enough money to support our aging parents who couldn’t make the trip? And if it couldn’t be done exactly legally, who among us would stop to consider those details? Don’t our families matter more than some bureaucratic complication?
And if we, as American citizens, can’t empathize with that desire, how many of us can call ourselves safe in our own country? Trump’s revocation of DACA and his VOICE crime registry, which draws attention to crimes committed by immigrants despite the fact that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes, are eerily reminiscent of the Nuremburg laws of 1935, in which Jews were singled out as criminals intent on destroying the fabric of German culture (sound familiar?) and which were used as justification for their extermination. The lack of action of the majority of German citizens to save Germany’s Jews inspired the famous quote by Martin Niemöller, a German-born Lutheran minister, that when the Nazis finally came for him, there was no one left to speak for him. Preserving the rights of immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, is preserving our own rights. When one marginalized group is exhausted, authoritarians will move on to another one. Do not assume you are safe from the chopping block.
We should act not only in the interests of self-preservation, but also in the preservation of our very humanity. The great heroes of the Holocaust were not its victims, but rather the privileged persons who risked their lives and fortunes to save the lives of those more vulnerable than themselves. They did not emerge unscathed. Oskar Schindler, the famous millionaire whose story was featured in the movie Schindler’s List, had such terrible PTSD that his life after the war was ruined by alcoholism and compulsive gambling. He became financially insolvent and was supported by the people whose lives he saved. Raoul Wallenberg, possibly the Holocaust’s greatest hero, was a wealthy Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of lives. He was kidnapped by the KGB after the war and died in prison a few years later.
Now is the time for those of us in privilege to become those heroes, not to save ourselves, but to save the world. Do what you have to do. Keep being public about your support for immigrants. Tell the accurate truth about your own immigrant story, about the people who didn’t learn English, or who came here illegally. Humanize the motivations of immigrants by putting your own face on them. If the government tells you to give up names of people, don’t do it. If you suspect your neighbors are in danger, find ways to hide them or smuggle them. Do not assume ICE will treat people fairly. The demonization of immigrants opens the door for them to commit atrocity.
Also, we need to be brave about calling people out for their real motivations for singling out undocumented immigrants. People claim that their reasoning is pragmatic, and they believe immigrants should respect our laws. But those same people will also say that we should only allow immigrants who assimilate quickly and learn English. It is important that we remind them that DREAMers already are assimilated and already know English. They claim to worry about crime from immigrants. It is important to remind them that people are ineligible for DACA if they have criminal records. They claim that their concerns are economic. It is important to point out to them that ending DACA will be economically costly and harmful to the United States. We need to show them that we see past their encoded language, and that we know that they are only looking for excuses not to do what is right. I am sad to say that attempting to prevail upon people’s compassion in these situations will not work. They have embraced a narrative, one that goes back to William F. Buckley in the 1960s, that it is possible for a government to be either compassionate or economically pragmatic. We need to point out to them that their chosen solutions are neither compassionate nor pragmatic, but only racist and xenophobic. They need to know that they are not fooling anyone with their lies. Morality is on our side, but so are the numbers.
As American-born allies to the cause of immigration, our privilege is now ours to spend. It is time to act righteously.