Friday, October 17, 2014

Wanna Fix the U.S.A? Welcome an Immigrant Today!

What if we've got it all wrong about immigrants?

The vast majority of people in the U.S. -- including myself -- are here because of immigration.

When we take the long view, most of us recognize that the greatest strength of the country is the new energy and new ideas that immigrants bring.

Many of us have the experience of knowing recent immigrants personally, and have enormous respect for the path that they have walked and love them and their families.

What some of us have trouble getting past is the idea that we're supposed to be digging our heels in and trying to stop the phenomenon of immigration from changing aspects of life in the U.S., and altering the dynamics of our own vocational space, in particular. But what if we've misjudged what we're supposed to be doing?

Empathy: This is personal

from "The Boat of No Smiles"
Photographs of Vietnamese "boat people"
by Eddie Adams
When we encounter the human experience of immigrants, we can begin to feel empathy. The answer to the question of "what's the right thing to do" suddenly becomes obvious.

This became very clear to me when I learned the story of the war photographer Eddie Adams and the impact he had on U.S. policy toward "boat people" fleeing Vietnam.  As explained in the film An Unlikely Weapon, Adams did a series of photographs of refugees, which he referred to as "The Boat of No Smiles," which eventually found their way into the Carter White House. The photos were instrumental in convincing Congress to admit large numbers of "boat people" into the U.S.

Many people in the U.S. -- often through the coordination of their church congregations -- devoted countless hours to assisting the people who came from Vietnam. (My sister, Patsy, was one of those people.)

Today, there are thousands -- perhaps millions -- of people in communities throughout the U.S. who work to extend hospitality and assistance to newly-arrived immigrants. For these people, this work is not a burden; it's just what you do for your neighbor.

Crossing: The ubiquitous story

When I lived in Taiwan in 1979-80, I became a big fan of Cloud Gate Dance Theater.

One of their works that made me marvel was one called Du Hai -- "Crossing the Sea." It involved a group of people facing the difficulties of a sea crossing in a small boat.

Cloud Gate Dance Theater: people and fabric
Part of what I loved about Du Hai was the way it used large pieces of fabric to convey the sensation of being in a boat among billowing waves, and the multiple uses to which they put the fabric - sea, clouds, sail, and more. Even a newcomer to modern dance, such as myself, could grasp what was going on.

Another thing was my awareness that the story that they were telling worked on multiple levels. First, of course, it had relevance for the generation of Mainland Chinese people who had ended up in Taiwan after fleeing Mainland China when the Communist forces took over. Second, they were telling the story of the general population of "Taiwanese" -- the great majority of whom were the descendants of immigrants from the mainland (mostly Fujian province), principally during the late 1700s. Third, in 1979-80, it was impossible to see without thinking of the "boat people" of Vietnam who were struggling to survive at that very moment.

Since that time, I frequently encounter images of people fleeing via boat to find refuge in a new land, -- people from Cuba trying to reach Florida; refugees from Africa trying to reach Italy; and on and on -- and every time I think, "Yes, du hai . . . . "

And the Africans brought to the U.S. in slave ships -- the most perilous du hai of all . . . .

And in the end, isn't it our own story? I don't know how your ancestors got here, but mine came on ships from Ireland in the late 19th century. If we think that was some other kind of du hai, something grand, maybe we'd better think again.

The Big Picture: Inexorable migration

Ever since I was in college, I've been reading the work of Nicholas Eberstadt. Nick writes a lot about Korea, China, and Russia and places like that, and his message, in a phrase, is "demographics is destiny."

Last Train Home delves into the
phenomenon of large-scale labor
migration in China today.
Nick points out that if you aren't thinking in terms of birth and death rates, trends in health, etc., you are likely to be thinking about yesterday's problems rather than where society is headed next year and in the next century.

And the demographic trend that trumps all the others is migration. If we want to plan for the future, we need to recognize that our own futures will be much more profoundly impacted by large scale migration than by our individual 401ks or the college majors of our children or who is in the White House.

Personally, I've seen the impact of China most clearly as it has affected China. The mass migration of workers from China's rural areas to the cities is a phenomenon, the significance of which we have not yet begun to comprehend.  However, it is certain that it is fundamental to the material changes that China has been able to bring about in the past several decades.

It occurs to me that the most important vocation of current U.S. residents -- even more important than their particular vocation as business people or construction workers or teachers or anything else -- is a general vocation of hospitality to the next wave of immigrants coming to our country.  We shouldn't be standing at the border, trying to keep people out.  We should be standing at the border trying to pull the people in.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

"There's one thing you don't understand," he said. "What you are calling 'the best and the brightest,' the leaders in China call 'troublemakers.; A hundred thousand Ph.D.'s stay behind in the U.S.? Two hundred thousand? A million? Fine! Let them! There's more where that came from! China's got nothing if not people!"

(See Why Beijing Always "Wins")

Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program (CLASP) was established in early 2014,  to provide direct living support and welcoming environments to asylum seekers.

(See About Chicago LGBT Asylum Support Program (CLASP) on the Chicago Forum on LGBTI Solidarity in Africa website)

Palm Sunday 2012 in Chicago: members of Logan Square congregations gathered to share news, information and opportunities for service and advocacy on matters of healthcare, housing, hunger and immigration.

(See Occupy Palm Sunday! in Logan Square )

Other related links

THE VIEW FROM ON THE GROUND: Immigration attorney Christopher Elmore, a member of St. Luke's Logan Square, talks about his experience helping people at the U.S. border navigate the immigration process: "Why You Should Care About What is Occurring to Women and Children in Artesia, NM": "There are many ways in which you can help the women and children in Artesia, or the other detention facilities . . . ."