Posts Tagged ‘John F. Kennedy’

Kennedys’ Nation of Immigrants

August 28, 2009

With the tragic passing of Edward Kennedy this past week, countless individuals and organizations have eulogized his 47 years of service. Most eulogies have focused on his health-care bills and speculate how he would have impacted the current public debate.  However, Kennedy will be missed for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the immigration reform in which he so passionately believed and our country so sorely needs. 

            Maybe he was influenced by his big brother Jack’s bestselling book A Nation of Immigrants. In the introduction to that book, Bobby Kennedy wrote, “Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal.”  Perhaps Ted saw in immigrants a continuation of the fight for civil rights. Whatever his inspiration, Sen. Edward Kennedy was a champion of immigration reform in his later years. In 2006 he partnered with Sen. John McCain in crafting bipartisan legislation which nearly succeeded in passing Congress. 

            Edward Kennedy will most certainly be missed by all, both in the political arena that so badly needs bipartisan cooperation as well as in the immigrant community which needs real reform. While Obama once promised comprehensive immigration reform within the year, he has since moved the deadline back to sometime next year. For our President, Congress, and all the men and women in this great nation, Ted Kennedy’s “Introduction to A Nation of Immigrants” should remain a lodestone.

[W]e will have ample inspiration in the lives of the immigrants all around us. From Jamestown to the Pilgrims to the Irish to today’s workers, people have come to this country in search of opportunity. They have sought nothing more than the chance to work hard and bring a better life to themselves and their families. They come to our country with their hearts and minds full of hope. I believe we can build the kind of tough, fair and practical reform that is worthy of our shared history as immigrants and as Americans.

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Ourense or The Rivers once were Studded with Gold

April 29, 2008

Ourense is a city located in the northwest of Spain. When the Romans first came to Ourense, they were enchanted with its thermal springs and mesmerized by the gold in its streams.  After a time, the gold ran out, and the springs are not quite the attraction they once were during Pax Romana, but Ourense is a city thriving in its unique blend of highway modernity and byway Castellano.  I only wish the United States had an interpreter who could translate Catalan into an English that xenophobes and nativists alike could understand.

My fellow Rotarians and I were granted an honored audience at the State General Administration building with the Governor of Ourense and his Secretary and Administrator of Immigration. While being thoroughly diplomatic, the Governor still managed to come out with a position stronly opposed to the current status of immigration in the United States. The Governor was adamant that to control immigration it is necessary to focus on employers rather than the employees they lure into a Catch-22 status of legality. ¨Control the businesses,¨ he intoned with his administratorial voice, ¨and you will not have any illegal workers.¨ Such measures of strict policies against employers hiring extralegal immigrants would help cut down on the number of victims currently exploited by American businesses ranging from forestry to farming. Rather than victimizing or criminalizing extralegal residents, such measures would merely get rid of the illegal pull factor which still draws hundreds of thousands of workers into the U.S. annually.

Additionally, the Governor echoed some of my deepest sentiments towards immigration. He came out very strongly with the idea that it is human right to migrate, but it is the state´s necessity and responsbility to assimilate those immigrants so that they can fully participate and contribute to the country that lured them with its desirability in the first place.  Here in Spain, he said, immigrants have been crossing from Morocco and Africa since time immemorial, but Spain has also experienced a surge in Eastern European immigrants through its induction into the European Union (E.U.).  In the borderless E.U., Spain has worked very hard to keep its country distinct from France and Germany and Soviet bloc countries. All this positive integration starts in its nation´s schools.  One gets the general idea that Spain would frown on the United States´bilingual education.  As many teachers in such classrooms will attest, this seemingly compassionate education system actually hamstrings students from becoming truly bilingual, and often keeps them from being proficient in any one language.  The Governor would definitely be appalled to learn that some students arrive  in my freshman English class with insufficient writing skills after 8 years in a bilingual ESL system; he would say, and I would concur, that the State has failed that child and the family he/she represents.

 The conversation concluded with a lengthy discussion about the United State´s proposal of a 700-mile border wall on its southern frontier.  The Governor, his Secretary, the Administrator of Immigration, and all the Ourense attendants listened with rapt horror as I described the construction of a wall in California and Arizona and the impending border wall bound for south Texas unless the federal laws are changed or sufficiently challenged.  Just as Catalan is distinct from Spanish, so too was this American mindset for these dignitaries accustomed to the E.U.´s concept of borders.  The Governor stated outright that, ¨it is difficult to defend the borders without rigid barriers, but it is our responsibility to use sensitive negotiations and work for better solutions all the time.¨  In a country like Spain, with its porous borders and flexible entries, the government has developed ways of encouraging legal immigration and withholding incentives from persons who neglect to register for authorized documents.  The United States would do well to follow Spain´s example which, although far from perfect, is far more progressive and comprehensive than the outdated American system of rigid quotas and would-be walls. 

As the dialogue came to a close, the Governor made a confession.  ¨My grandparents were immigrants to three different countries.  In my province, I realize that this is a place, a nation purely of immigrants.¨  Smacking of John F. Kennedy´s optimistic idealism, I wish the Governor could discourse frankly with American officials regarding our stalled immigration reform.  Immigration, far from being an American dilemma, is an issue all countries face.  The greater a country, the greater its pull on immigrants and inevitably, the more it must deal delicately with issues of immigration legislation.  We must not shirk from these issues.  Beyond mere legislation, these issues are real lives.  Someday, ages and ages hence, some sojourner will come across old New York just as I came upon el centro antiguo in Ourense.  The way we deal with immigration in this generation will dictate what is written on the historical markers of Greenwich Village and what is inscribed beneath Emma Lazarus´s poem on the placard at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

The Inescapable Network of Mutuality

April 28, 2008

¨Bah hua liomh biore.¨  In Irish cities like Galway, this Gaelic expression was the only way to get a pint of the best Guiness you´ve ever tasted.  While British rule in Ireland sought to eradicate all traces of the Gaelic influence on Ireland, this indefatigable culture lives on in the west coast of Ireland in particular.  Despite burning down the churches and razing ruins, despite prohibiting Gaelic teaching in schools and converting Celtic names to their English counterparts, Gaelic is still spoken, though mostly by the old.

Driving through Vigo, the largest city in Gallicia, Spain, I came across ruins that predated the Roman conquest of the Gaels in Spain.  Though little remains of El Castro, this city which once thrived both in the forest and on the bay, it is highly reminiscent of towers and dolmens in Ireland.  Highly aware of this coincidence, I began to notice more telling signs of interconnectedness between northwest Spain and the home of my Celtic forefathers the McCarthys and Burkes and Emmetts.  The distinct language of Gallicia, la lengua de los Gallegos, bears striking similarities to words in Gaelic.  Signs in this part of Spain bear words like ¨Beade¨and ¨Domh¨¨, both words which one is just as likely to find on a Sunday drive through rural Ireland.  The rich and verdant climate of this area makes me speculate that the Gaels felt right at home when they landed on the shores of the land of Eire. 

In Ireland, primary students are required to take Gaelic lessons, in hopes that by inundating the next generation, the Gaelic heritage and culture can be preserved and honored.  Gallicia is going through much of the same dilemmas, since its language was viciously suppressed during the Franco regime and needs to rebound if it is not going to be absolutely absorbed in popular Spanish. 

All of this makes me wax philosophical and grow proud of the indomitable spirit God placed in mankind.  In much the same way John F. Kennedy praised the immigrant spirit to thrive and survive in his book A Nation of Immigrants, I am wowed by the successful movements of people throughout history.  From the eternally migrant Jewish culture which serves as the basis for numerous religions and modern law to the Spanish culture and language which spanned seas and continents, people simply desire an opportunity to use their gifts in the pursuit of happiness.  From the pyramids of Egypt to the same pyramids in Aztex Mexico, to the persistent reoccurrence of flood myths in virtually every culture, immigration is far from a new phenomen which countries are struggling to legislate and control.  Immigration is a constant, and therefore cannot be prohibited but rather controlled so as to benefit the sending country, the receiving country, and the immigrants themselves.  The past successes of migrating peoples bear witness to the possibility of real immigration reform in the United States of America, especially in this age of globalization.

When I return to my classroom of F114 in Simon Rivera High School in Brownsville, Texas, on the southernmost border between two North American countries at peace, I will most assuredly come back with a renewed dedication to devoting my time and efforts to enabling immigrants and guiding the immigration legislation in the United States.  At the same time, I am overjoyed to bring back to my students the long view of immigration history.  When I teach my 7th period class, I cannot wait to tell Ms. Gallegos that her family comes from northernmost Spain, where her ancestors spoke a language closer to my Irish predecessors than her español mexicana.  As I travel back to the place where some legislators misguidedly are pressing for a border wall between two countries separated only by an imaginary line, I hope I will be able to civilly speak reason into the public debate.  Immigration is more than Mexican migrant workers attempting to work cheap labor in U.S. fields, just as it is more than Spanish conquistadores and English Puritans and Italian shoemakers and Irish coal-miners and Pennsylvania Dutch bakers and Polish meat-packers and Scandinavian farmers.  To take a long view of immigration is to understand that the United States need laws which uplift human personality and grant legal status to that spark of the divine which is as omnipresent in the immigrant as the resident hence, now, and forevemore.

¨Mas claro no canta el gallo. The rooster couldn´t sing it any clearer.¨

Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future

February 17, 2008

    On this President’s Day, let us recall our long and storied past Presidential stances on immigration. The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, which codified national citizenship policy for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” has allowed many immigrant children to live with rights for which their parents must win the “lottery” (quota system). Countless children I teach each day have the Fourteenth Amendment to thank for their status in Brownsville, Texas. President Andrew Johnson dragged his heels against this and all the other Civil Rights Bills, much to his Republican party’s dismay; however, the bills were passed and continue to stand as some of the most important immigration legislation today.

    The literacy test, which was first introduced in 1895 by Henry Cabot Lodge and which took twenty-two years to finally pass, was vetoed by a myriad of presidents such as Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft. Cleveland’s reason for the veto was that the terrific growth of the United States up until 1897 was “largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens” (Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277) He also declared that immigrants of the not-so-distant past were some of the nation’s best citizens. In his steadfast veto, Cleveland addresses the issue of citizenship requirements and ends with a conclusion that may be very insightful to our nation’s current preoccupation with national security and terrorism. Cleveland said,

It is infinitely more safe to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who, though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and an opportunity to work than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies of governmental control who can not only read and write, but delights in arousing by unruly speech the illiterate and peacefully inclined to discontent and tumult” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277).

Perhaps our country’s leadership could come up with smart background checks which do not discriminate so much on nationality but criminality and past employment.

    Taft’s relentless veto was based solely on the economic necessity for a large and constant immigrant base. His reasoning echoes the reasoning of the Bracero Program, worker visa programs, and short-term migrant labor initiatives. Taft’s rationale was that, “the natives are not willing to do the work which the aliens come over to do” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). The beauty of immigration is that few immigrant families stay in these entry-level positions – the steady influx of immigrants who are upwardly mobile is a dynamic, short-term phenomenon for new immigrant families.

    Woodrow Wilson, in 1915, spoke out on the ethical the cause of immigrants. His veto to the literacy test rested on the fact that the bill would reject new immigrants “unless they have already had one of the chief of the opportunities they seek, the opportunity of education” ( Roger Daniels’ Coming to America, 277). Again, this same argument holds true and needs to be taken up by so many groups opposed to a physical border wall. One step into a school on la frontera will reinforce the fact that so many immigrants come to these United States seeking a better education for their families. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), which has failed to pass in several bills both in 2006 and 2007, would ensure that all schoolchildren who are high-achievers in our nation’s classrooms would have the opportunity, regardless of income or citizenship, to study at institutions of higher education and apply themselves to becoming skilled workers. Had he lived another 93 years, Woodrow Wilson would be one of the staunchest advocates of the DREAM Act, which could have proved one of the most empowering and inspiring legislations of the second Bush administration.

    The literacy test passed in 1917, and was soon followed by Calvin Coolidge’s Immigration Act of 1924 which set the first nation-based quota system for all incoming immigrants (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 only applied to “sojourners” from the largest country in the world). This Act also marked the beginning of the first official Border Patrol.

    Arguably the last President to be extremely pro-immigrant died with a couple bullets in 1963. His dream was to revamp immigration legislation to “base admission on the immigrant’s possession of skills our country needs and on the humanitarian grounds of reuniting families” (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants, 80). JFK firmly believed that the quota system was discriminatory at a time when Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement were also making strides toward a Civil Rights Bill. Kennedy goes on to write that,

The use of a national origins system is without basis in either logic or reason if neither satisfies a national need nor accomplishes an international purpose. In an age of interdependence [read “globalization”] any nation with such a system is an anachronism, for it discriminates among applicants for admission into the U.S. on the basis of accident of birth (John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants,75).

 

Had he lived longer than 46 years, perhaps the United States of America would not still have a quota system which permits only 24,000 people from any country to migrate to our land, regardless of whether their sending nation has a population of China’s 1.3 billion or Monaco’s 32,000.

    One of the last substantial pieces of immigration legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Signed by Ronald Reagan, this has since been decried as an act which only worsened problems and which amounted to scotch-free amnesty. While neither of these are the case, IRCA did not ultimately address the true problem. By treating the symptom of illegal immigrants rather than the immigration legislation which criminalized them, Reagan departed from Kennedy’s lead and opted for the easy, immediate solution. While IRCA did make a substantive difference in the lives of 2.7 million people, it did not address the real problem which finds our country with 12 million residents on the wrong side of current immigration laws.

    The final “immigration law” on the books is one which physically, socially, economically, and ethically affects our nation’s immigrants, citizens, and borderlands. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, supported by President Bush and, sadly, both Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton, paved the way for a 700-mile fence along our 2,000-mile southern border. This “secure fence” would reroute extralegal immigrants to the most dangerous desert sections of our border; it would be an affront to American immigrants past, present, and future; it would be a tremendous waste what some estimate to be $5 billion while border communities such as Brownsville and Hidalgo County continue to be the poorest in the nation; it would serve as a severe distraction from the necessity for comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform; it would strand extralegal residents on this side of the border; it would separate loved ones; it would cripple border economies which thrive on the influx of international business; it would destroy precious and rare ecosystems and wildlife which cannot be found anywhere else; and it would cause our young nation of immigrants to wall ourselves off from our neighbors and the globalizing world at large.

    Let’s pray that true immigration reform will come with the next Presidency. If protest is prayer in action, then please join your prayers with ours, put your feet to the street, and join the Border Ambassadors and concerned citizens in the March Against the Wall as we walk 120 miles from Roma to Brownsville, Texas, this March 8-16.