Originally published in The Guardian
Back during the Vietnam War, an American military officer pioneered the concept of destroying a village in order to save it. Last week Arizona lawmakers continued that tradition by passing an anti-illegal immigration bill that would save America from the alleged immigrant scourge by destroying the very ideals that make America worth saving. The bill gives police power to stop anyone at random – provided police have “reasonable suspicion” they don’t belong in this country – and anyone who can’t show proper papers will be fined $500.
So what traits invoke “reasonable suspicion?” That depends on the cop, but will probably include speaking Spanish, speaking English with an accent, being Hispanic, looking Hispanic, or having dark hair and eyes. Millions of legal immigrants – and full-fledged American citizens – who fall into at least one of those categories had best prepare for regular ID checks in Arizona.
Government agents granted authority to stop people at will and demand to see their papers? As a kid I saw that all the time, while watching old black-and-white movies about the suckitude of life under totalitarian regimes, but never expected to see it happen in my beloved home, the Land of the Free. Anyone who supports turning America into such a place does more damage to my country than immigrants ever could. Of course, anti-immigration bills can be a tough sell in a nation founded by immigrants, so supporters of such laws often make a point of saying, “I don’t oppose all immigration, just the illegal kind.” Then they’ll add, “My ancestors came to this country legally! Today’s illegals should do that too.”
That’s a disingenuous comparison. For most of US history, legal immigration was easy: arrive on our shores, prove you have no contagious diseases, and you’re in! If today’s immigrants only had to do that plus pass a criminal background check, illegal immigration wouldn’t be such a festering sore on America’s body politic. But coming here legally is effectively impossible nowadays, at least for the illegal workers Arizona wants to deport back to poor Spanish-speaking countries.
My maternal grandparents were born in eastern Europe, and came to America with no money, few skills and zero knowledge of the English language. Under today’s immigration laws they’d never get in, and I’m far from the only American to say that of my ancestors. Face it: with the exception of the African slaves (who obviously didn’t choose to come here) and a few aristocratic English second sons denied an inheritance by primogeniture laws, the people who built America were mostly – well, losers. Outcasts. Misfits. People so miserable in the Old Country they risked everything to journey to America and grab a chance at a new life. The rich, happy people didn’t bother emigrating; it requires a certain desperation to take such foolhardy risks as crossing the Atlantic in steerage class or crossing the Arizona desert on foot, just for the chance to start over at rock bottom.
To solve our illegal immigration problem, we should return to old-school immigration rules: anyone with the gumption to come here and work is welcome, not on some disposable-worker H1B visa that puts immigrants at the mercy of their employers, but on the same free-agent residency/citizenship track available to all.
And those ambitious go-getters will do better things for my country than any number of my whiny, bigoted compatriots who think the way to make America great again is to ignore everything that made it great in the first place.