An immigration policy retrospective
Reflecting on migration during Hispanic Heritage Month
We’re now in National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
Having parts of two months serve as a commemorative month seems strange, but the month began as one week: Congressman George E. Brown, who represented two heavily Hispanic areas, East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, advocated a weeklong commemoration in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson backed it.
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan supported Public Law 100-402, which made the celebration a month long. Why the Sept. 15 start? That’s the anniversary of independence for five Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Mexico’s Independence Day is Sept. 16, and Chile’s is Sept. 18. The holiday called Columbus Day, Dia de la Raza, or Indigenous Peoples Day comes on Oct. 12, near the conclusion of the month.
The debate on what to call that day is minor, though, compared to the debate on waves of immigration that has roiled U.S. politics for two decades or more. Three years ago, a Saturday Series installment included three columns I had written about immigration over the years. Below are three others. Most immigration into this country during the past half-century has been Hispanic, so it seems good and right to run these immigration columns during this month’s celebration of our Hispanic heritage.
Invaders Within (1994)
Catch me before I chuckle again: Whenever someone says immigration from Mexico will destroy Texas, I can’t help laughing. What I saw during my Sept. 23-25 weekend in Austin, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, reminded me that tenured barbarians are already ravaging our republic, and that we should rein in those rascals and not worry so much about immigrants who value work and family.
The weekend festivities began at a time at the University of Texas when thoughts usually turn to football games. At 4 p.m. on Friday my colleagues in the journalism department voted for a policy statement on “diversity” that commits the department to “increasing opportunities” for homosexual professors and students. Some of my colleagues train future reporters and editors to sneer whenever they hear Texas conservatives use the f-word, “family.” Others do not engage in deliberate destruction, but have unthinkingly absorbed the values of liberal academic culture and are passing them on. In either case, journalism students—the future media gatekeepers—are in bad hands.
I spent the next day in a setting far different from that of our air-conditioned conference room. Since a cold front had come in, the temperature was only about 90 in the shadeless newer colonia on the outskirts of Juarez, where thousands of migrants from the interior of Mexico live in cardboard shacks on plots of barren dirt that they have bought. Many have come to work for about $2,000 a year in Juarez factories.
UT Marxists seeing this would immediately yell, “capitalist exploitation”—but Presbyterian minister Moises Zapata then showed me around another poor community, one that has been around a bit longer. There, cardboard has given way to cement block and ornamental grillwork, and houses have fans. At a 15-year-old settlement further down the road, there are handsome houses, small trees, paved roads, some air conditioners, and even a satellite dish. “Some of the colonia here are like slums in the States,” one missionary pointed out, “but there the poor stay poor, because of welfare dependency. Here, you can see progress: People have to work.”
An emphasis on hard work and family underlies the transformation, but once a basic level of comfort is achieved, stagnation sometimes sets in. That’s why another minister, Josue Mayo, led a family values Sunday School class at the middle-class Eglesia Renovacion in Juarez on Sept. 25, basing his teaching on Ephesians 5:22- 25: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. … Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Pastor Mayo noted—here’s a rough translation—“We honor God by obeying him, and when we obey him we have family and economic progress.”
God’s rules also point the way to progress north of the border. The truly New Texas is and should be multicultural ethnically and racially, but it needs common values concerning the importance of family and work; a culture with firm foundations cannot be built on the sand of radical individual autonomy. Immigrants who have lived out these common values should be welcome. That’s why, under the Olasky immigration policy, men who have been married for at least 10 years and have worked steadily during that period would be accepted for immigration, along with their wives and children. (Non- citizens would not be eligible for governmental welfare, however.)
The real threat to Texas resides in university departments such as my own. The University of Texas at Austin, like many other schools, has etched on its administration building the words of John 8:32, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Alas, the opposite tendency is also operative: lies heard in the classroom enslave millions.
Will immigration destroy Texas values? The work and family ethic is already on life support, holding on only through new infusions of a Biblical worldview. As Moises Zapata puts it, “Make a pagan rich and you worsen his condition, because instead of getting drunk only once a week on weekends, he can now afford to drink steadily and purchase pornography and prostitutes.” Juarez and Austin both have that problem. “Educate a pagan and you worsen your condition,” Zapata says, “because you now have a smart enemy.”
That’s the prime problem at most Texan universities. “The only solution is Jesus Christ,” Zapata concludes.
Guest workers and sponsorships (2001)
As los presidentes Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico meet this week, a three-dimensional national debate about immigration is intensifying, and a fourth dimension may soon kick in.
The three now-prominent dimensions are economic, political, and environmental. Economically, immigrant labor is important in many industries, but it apparently reduces wages for the native-born by several percentage points. Politically, TeamBush wants to increase its percentage of the Hispanic vote, but since most Hispanics are not Republican, the conservative newsweekly Human Events had a front page headline, “Legalizing Illegals May Lead to Democratic Domination.”
The environmental dimension is also significant, leading many Americans to temper sympathy for people searching for a better life with calculations about resources and a reduction of wide-open spaces. But a fourth dimension up to now hasn’t received much notice. At WORLD we always ask whether the Bible suggests ways to think through policy issues.
It turns out that Biblical pleas for the kind treatment of aliens are almost as abundant as calls for the protection of widows and orphans. Prophets frequently commanded, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” Aliens in ancient Israel had the same opportunity as the local poor to take on some hard tasks, such as picking up grain from the corners of fields and picking fruit from high branches. Charity is also important: Israelites were to give part of their tithes to “the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”
The Bible emphasizes hospitality, but it also celebrates a melting pot. After all, the Bible’s most famous story about an alien stars Ruth, the widow of an Israelite who had moved to the land of Moab and married her there. Three times Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, tells Ruth not to become an immigrant to Israel. Only when Naomi realizes that Ruth is determined to go with her, and only when Ruth says “Your people will be my people, and your God my God,” does she assent.
Immigration to America used to be the secular equivalent of that. Aliens, like my grandparents, worked to learn English and wanted their children to be Americanized. Now, though, Mexican flags lead Los Angeles parades and naturalized U.S. citizens from Mexico are encouraged to vote in Mexican elections. School multicultural programs teach kids to think of themselves primarily as members of a particular ethnic group rather than as Americans.
Two particular policy measures seem to be consistent with a Biblical way of thinking. Israelites were repeatedly told, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.” Illegal aliens today are easy to take advantage of, because they cannot contact their local sheriff when they are cheated. That’s an argument for a a guest worker program, with temporary visas, so that those determined to come anyway gain legal protection and the right to work at jobs that would otherwise go unfilled.
Secondly, Ruth in the Bible book by that name receives help from a distant relative, Boaz, her “kinsman-redeemer.” Immigrants to America have also had to have a sponsor who would teach them the ways of the new country and guarantee that they will not need to go on welfare. From the 1960s through the mid-1990s sponsorship agreements were often wishes rather than legally binding obligations. Now they are being taken seriously again, and that is as it should be.
I could insert lots of caveats and cautions, of course. We need to stress Biblical moral law and the principles of ancient Israel’s civil law, but not the specific measures. Societies two-to-four millennia ago did not have the same kind of borders we have. In New Testament times, with Israel part of the Roman empire, cultural barriers between Jew and Greek are addressed more than geographic boundaries. Etc.
Even as we debate nuances, though, the Bible will help us remember that immigrants are important, sometimes in ways we don’t anticipate at the time. The Biblical Ruth was a successful immigrant and a romantic heroine who married Boaz, her deliverer. But she also became the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David, and an ancestor of Christ Himself.
Immigration, past and present (2005)
LOWER EAST SIDE, NEW YORK CITY—This area dominated largely by immigrants for two centuries is a good place to think about America’s growing immigration debate. This month dominated by two welcoming but challenging presidents, Washington and Lincoln, is a good time to do so.
The lower east side once was home to African-Americans freed from slavery, and then Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants escaping from other forms of oppression. Now it has remnants of all those groups plus Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Chinese, and other Asians.
A century ago, a higher percentage of Americans had been born abroad than is now the case. Then, as now, immigrants suffered at first so their children could have better lives. Then, as now, work was hard and long for those who wanted to save some money. Then, as now, homes were crowded, with immigrants sometimes making a one-family apartment suffice for three.
But two differences stand out. One is that, in the past, leading institutions strove mightily to Americanize students. Walk to 45 Rivington Street here and see the five-story, red brick school where Harry Golden (originally Hershel Goldhirsch) enrolled in 1908. He later wrote a best-seller, Only in America, in which he didn’t complain or blame the United States for the hard life immigrants had. Instead, he wrote, “the only thing that overcomes hard luck is hard work.”
Other graduates of the all-boys P.S. 20 were acclaimed actors Paul Muni (Muni Weisenfreund) and Edward G. Robinson (Emmanuel Goldenberg). George Gershwin (Jacob Gershowitz) showed the success of the school’s attempt to inculcate a love for America culture when he composed between 1923 and 1935 Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess.
Just down the street at 61-63 Rivington stands the three-story, red brick building that was a New York Public Library branch funded by Andrew Carnegie and built with an open-air reading room on the roof. The patriotic books it stocked opened many minds: if it was typical of other libraries of the era, biographies of Washington and Lincoln were the most frequently checked-out works, and immigrants reading about the presidents would see how they treated newcomers to America.
For example, President Washington took his oath of office a couple of miles from here in 1789 and then wrote to one synagogue, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” The way to merit goodwill was to work hard to gain your own vine and fig tree and not to covet those of neighbors.
Abraham Lincoln opposed the “Know-Nothings” who made up part of the nascent Republican Party and applauded the contributions immigrants made. His 1864 Thanksgiving Proclamation gave thanks to “Almighty God” who “has largely augmented our free population by emancipation and by immigration.” But he also expected new arrivals to be a blessing to America; for example, he praised German-Americans (then a leading immigrant group) because they were “true and patriotic.”
That should be our test regarding immigrants. Those who come to America to tear it down or live off of others should not be welcomed. Those who are “true and patriotic” should be. This means we must toughen our tests for citizenship and not allow dual citizenship. It particularly means that our schools and libraries should do their part to communicate patriotism rather than politically correct anti-Americanism, and that all children should learn to speak English so we do not end up with a bifurcated culture.
I mentioned that there are two differences from the semi-good old days and here’s the second: Then almost all immigrants came by boat through fixed entry points, and now we have porous borders with immigrants coming by land illegally. Now we are also stuck with a coalition of liberals who think immigrants can be their political salvation and corporate conservatives who see their economic usefulness.
I don’t know the right number of immigrants to let in. I do know that those who are allowed in should be here legally, so that they have protection against those who would prey on them rather than pray with them. And I know that we cannot dodge this issue.
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