My thoughts have been on immigration reform this week. I grew up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood just outside Fresno, CA. Although we moved back and forth between communities and even states throughout my childhood, we always seemed to return to Highway City to live for brief periods or at least to visit my grandmother. I suppose if any place seemed like home it was that rural area of grape vineyards and cotton fields and olive orchards.
I worked in the fields alongside Mexican families. I watched pregnant women labor all day long with their husbands and children. I shared looks of boredom and desperation with them. Even though they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Spanish we managed to communicate that we wanted to be running in the park instead of picking cotton. It never occurred to me to ask if they were in this country legally. I’m not certain my dad knew or cared either. They were willing to work and so were we.
My classes at school were dominated by Mexican culture and Catholic traditions. Kids spoke Spanish on the playground and sometimes in class. We ate fish every Friday. I envied the pretty communion dresses of the young girls I saw outside the Catholic Church. I learned about Mexican holidays and celebrations. I grew up understanding that Cinco de Mayo is an American holiday, originating in California, not Mexico.
Of course Fresno and all the surrounding communities changed over time as other immigrants moved to CA during the sixties and subsequent decades. We lived for a time near a Laotian neighborhood. Our church added a Cambodian service. We had German neighbors, French neighbors, Italian neighbors. I don’t remember anyone showing us their citizenship papers.
I suppose my childhood background is what leads me to have mixed feelings this morning about who should be allowed to live in our country and who should not. Studies have shown that people are very tolerant of their neighbors- even in areas where there are major problems with border control and illegals are a burden on local services- until the issue of immigration becomes a political squabble and gains media attention. This seems to happen about every four years.
I have read postings on FB recently about the need for everyone to learn to speak English. Most of the tirades are aimed at those who speak Spanish and yet many older immigrants from other countries maintain their native language and rely on children and grandchildren to help them live their daily lives in an English-speaking country. Vast neighborhoods in the East are dominated by other languages, as are areas of San Francisco and other major cities. Spanish labels are easy to criticize, but there are parts of the country where labels are printed in English and French. Our country actually joined English, French, and Spanish territories to become the U.S. A. And what of our Native Americans? Would we have them give up their language in order to live here? By rights I suppose we should be required to speak Choctaw in order to live in Bryan County.
And English really isn’t. Have you taken a good look at a dictionary lately? Our daily language has evolved so far away from the native language of our ancestors that it would probably seem like a foreign language to them. And to be honest, many of the people I come in contact with each day can’t speak English well enough to communicate with anyone other than their redneck beer-drinking buddies. Most Chinese school children speak better English than our own.
Yes, we need for our government communications and documents to be in one consistent language. But do we also want to make it nearly impossible for someone from another country to manage their daily lives and learn to adapt to our ways? Have you ever tried to shop in a grocery store in a foreign country? Ever have a problem in a foreign country and breathed a sigh of relief that someone nearby spoke English?
So, how tightly to we want to guard our borders? Who do we want to keep out? Who do we want to send home? How much money do we want to spend on the problem? We all have foreign doctors these days. I could barely understand the instructions given to me by the Indian respiratory therapist who treated me after my last surgery. I watched the Kentucky Derby with a sense of amusement yesterday. I could barely understand the winning jockey because of his heavy accent. But we don’t want to keep him from being in the country! The immigration reforms are going to provide special treatment for the educated and desirables who come over the border. Apparently it’s just those who are uneducated or might be violent or might be on drugs or might have too many children who need to be stopped. We already have so many of those who were born in this country! We sure don’t need any more.
We constantly hear about our need to be able to operate in a global market. We need to educate our children for a global economy. We need to protect our global ecology. We need to respond to changes in global politics. We need to share our wealth with those less fortunate in the global community. The Bible even admonishes us to share the gospel with the world. I’m not sure we can do all of that while living in a fenced, protected, insulated, isolated country. If we want to visit and live and work in other countries, are not obligated to make it possible for others to do the same here?
Do I have an answer to the problem? No. Because there isn’t one. Immigration reform is an issue with as many complications as there are immigrants. Besides, I firmly believe there are six domestic problems we will NEVER resolve to the satisfaction of every citizen: healthcare, immigration, education, taxes, person freedom (gay rights, gun rights, etc.), and unemployment. We will continue to have reforms and debates until my grandchildren have grandchildren.
But on this Sunday of celebration I offer you this little reminder to ponder. My own original ancestor to this country came here because he was in trouble in his native Friesland for allowing his child to be baptized by an unsanctioned priest. He didn’t speak the politically correct language. He wasn’t the “right” religion. He wasn’t educated. Yet, he adapted. He became a businessman and a community leader. He helped defend his adopted country. He raised a family and they went on to help settle a new state and build other businesses and have other families.
And here I am…an English-speaking, well-educated professional who has to remember from time to time that she comes from humble beginnings.