Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The karma of a nation: "This Land is Your Land"

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a Sephardic Jewish American born in New York City wrote some of the best-known words in American poetry. Part of her poem “The New Collosus” were inscribed the Statue of Liberty some twenty years after the poet died, because the words were thought to capture the generous spirit of the American people.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I was born in a part of the United States that was made a territory after a war of US aggression against our neighbor to the south. I belong to an ethnic group, the English, that makes up less than 7.6% of the population of the state in which I was born. Almost 37% of the population of my state are descendants of Spain, Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries, and another 10% are native Americans whose land was forcibly taken from them by waves of people of European descent. No doubt most of my views on American immigration policy is shaped by the fact that most of my ancestors came from England several generations before the United States was an independent country and that I somehow was born in a state whose principal values were forged more by Mexican and native American values than by anything from England. The Mexican culture of hospitality has shaped my thinking at least as much as the English-American value of equality. Because of my own deepest religious and social values, I find myself amazed at the attitude of many of my fellow Americans—an attitude that all too often strikes me as mean-spirited.

The aim of this essay is to outline a few considerations that I would hope might become the basis of American immigration policy in the near future.

  • Let there be an international agreement that allows people to move as easily across borders as goods. The North-American Free Trade Agreement did much to eliminate protectionist measures that stood in the way of the unimpeded flow of goods across the borders between the United States and Canada and Mexico. Unfortunately, NAFTA did little to help the people whose lives were affected by these changes in trade patterns. NAFTA was an agreement that served the interests not of ordinary people, but of multinational corporations. It was an agreement of the wealthy for the wealthy. It is time to amend the agreement so that all Americans—that is, all the people living in North America, Central America and South America can move freely from one country to another in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. The model for this agreement might be something like that which exists in the European Union, whereby citizens of the twenty-seven member states can move freely anywhere within the union. What I would propose, in other words would be an entity of united American states in which everyone from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego could travel without impediment and take up residence to work wherever they wish within the two American continents. The best way to eliminate illegal aliens is to banish the laws that make it illegal to move freely in pursuit of a livelihood.
  • Let there be a common currency throughout the Americas. Toward the end of facilitating the free movement of both peoples and goods and services, there should be a common currency somewhat like the Euro in Europe. It might be called something like the American Peso.
  • Let there be at least three official languages in the Union of American States. As anyone who lives in Canada has experienced, it is quite manageable to have two official languages. Switzerland manages four, as does the small Republic of Singapore. Surely a territory as large as the proposed Union of American States could manage the three languages already in common use throughout the region. Having three official languages would ideally be much more than a passive acceptance that these languages exist. Rather, Spanish, English and French should be taught to all students in all countries from the very beginning of a child's education so that everyone in the Americas would be comfortable speaking, reading and writing all three of these languages. Not only would competence in these three languages make a great deal of the world's culture accessible to all American peoples, but it would facilitate movement across borders so that all American people would be at home, at least linguistically, anywhere from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego.

The policies advocated by many citizens of the United States would be comical if the spirit behind them were not so tragically lacking in the spirit of charity that is so important in all the religions commonly practiced in the United States and the rest of the Americas. Some have proposed the ludicrous idea of building a tall wall or fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. Others have advocated tightening the border so that people cannot cross from one country to another as easily as they now do. These ideas are ridiculous, because both of the borders between the United States and neighboring countries are completely artificial. That is, they are not based on geographical realities but on arbitrary political decisions. Drawing a boundary with a straight-edged rule and then expecting animals, birds and human beings to honor those boundaries shows an appalling lack of any sense of reality. Millions of United States of Americans have relatives in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas. These families have become divided not only because people have moved, but because artificial lines have been drawn on maps. As many people of Mexican descent in the Southwestern United States say “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.” (One of my favorite buildings in the city where I live was built when the land it is on was considered part of Spain. When Mexico gained independence, the building became part of Mexico. When this land was ceded by Mexico as part of the Treaty of Hidalgo, it became a territory of the United States. The same is true of many buildings in the southwestern United States.)

The mean-spirited xenophobia exhibited by many Americans, nearly all of whom are themselves the descendants of immigrants, is creating a national karma that is not only disgraceful and embarrassing but also potentially dangerous. If the United States of America is ever to regain the reputation of benevolence and goodness it once held in most parts of the world, our people will have to meditate long and hard on the words of the Jewish American woman from New York whose words have brought tears of joy to countless millions of people, whether they were born in the United States or migrated to this country in pursuit of the inalienable God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.