I appreciate everyone’s kind comments on my first blog entry. I’ve been thinking about what to say in my next entry, and what I keep coming back to something that feels so crucial to what I’m calling Golden Rule activism: keeping the human element ever before our eyes, focusing on the impact that our decisions have on actual flesh-and-blood human beings. I want share a bit of my personal evolution on this idea, using the issue of immigration as an example.
When I lived in the US, I was always pro-immigrant, though I joke now that everything I thought I knew about immigration was wrong. Since then, especially with the help of my immigration-expert partner Patricia (who is an academic in that field), I’ve come to know quite a bit more. It’s now pretty easy for me to refute the various anti-immigration arguments that Trump and his supporters put forth. Contrary to what they say, there is no “invasion” (since 2008, more immigrants are leaving than coming in), immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than natural-born citizens, they don’t drain government services because undocumented immigrants aren’t even allowed to use most government services, they pay more into the system in taxes than they ever take out, they add more net jobs to the economy, they do jobs natural-born citizens simply won’t do for any wage, the economy would collapse without them, etc.
These refutations are all true and all worth putting forth, because they give us a more accurate picture of the on-the-ground situation, which is essential if we’re going to discern what is the most loving path for everyone involved. But to me they are not enough all by themselves, because they suggest that immigrants are good (or at least not bad) only to the degree that they serve as means to other people’s (our citizens’, our country’s) ends. As long as immigrants are useful cogs in the machinery of society, they can stay. If they aren’t useful, out with them. What’s lost here is that they are not cogs in any machinery: they are actual human beings who are ends in themselves, human beings who are suffering tremendous pain and deserve help from their brothers and sisters regardless of whatever perceived usefulness they may have.
And now that I live in Mexico and have both spoken to many actual migrants and read the stories of others, for me the core issue is the lives of these human beings. Their situation is far more desperate that most Americans imagine. We are talking about families being torn apart, with husbands separated from wives and with parents deported to Mexico and points south while their US citizen children remain in the US. People being dropped off at a bus station by ICE in the middle of the night with no money to get a bus ticket (and in one case I read, the person actually had a plane ticket!). A mother losing her American children to foster care because in the eyes of the law, her being deported against her will was an act of “abandoning” them. A woman being forced to sign her own deportation order by ICE agents holding her down and dipping her finger in ink to “sign” the order. A person in detention being penalized for not attending a court hearing many miles away that she never heard about. People spending years in detention (a prison in everything but name) while their cases wind through the Kafkaesque maze of immigration courts.
And then there are the even crueler realities: people in detention losing hope and hanging themselves, people in detention being killed by guards or allowed to die through the denial of needed medical care, people being deported to places where their death at the hands of soldiers or gangsters is a virtual certainty, people losing limbs by falling off of “la Bestia” (“the Beast,” the freight trains that people climb onto to travel through Mexico), people being robbed, raped and killed by drug cartels, human smugglers, and human traffickers, people being buried in unmarked mass graves, never to be heard from again, their families condemned forever to wonder what happened to them.
Yet people keep trying to cross the US border, and will keep trying no matter how many walls we erect or Border Patrol agents we hire or detention centers we build. Why? In the end, it is because they are desperate, the situations they’re coming from are worse than the risks of making the trip, and their love for their families drives them to seek not just a better life, but in many cases the mere chance to stay alive. No force on earth will ever hold back the human drive to live and to love.
As with every other issue we face, then, it is the lives of our fellow human beings that matter here, people who deserve the same love and compassion that we want for ourselves. Whatever the solution to the complex issues brought up by immigration, this human element should never be forgotten. And to bring the point home, I want to share one particular immigrant story I read recently. It’s not nearly as graphic as some of the things I’ve just shared, but it is the painful story of one man who loved his family and wanted to give them the best life possible.
The following is a letter written in 1905 by a man who immigrated to the United States from Bavaria and became a US citizen, but wanted to return to Bavaria twenty years later because the weather in New York was bad for his wife’s health. However, because he hadn’t completed his mandatory military service in Bavaria (he had left when he was sixteen) and hadn’t removed himself from the registry of the town he lived in before his immigration to the United States, the Bavarian government ordered that he be deported from the country of his birth. In this letter, preserved in a German archive, this man pleads with Prince Luitpold, prince regent of Bavaria, for mercy:
Most Serene, Most Powerful Prince Regent! Most Gracious Regent and Lord!
I was born in Kallstadt on March 14, 1869. My parents were honest, plain, pious vineyard workers. They strictly held me to everything good — to diligence and piety, to regular attendance in school and church, to absolute obedience toward the high authority.
After my confirmation, in 1882, I apprenticed to become a barber. I emigrated in 1885, in my sixteenth year. In America I carried on my business with diligence, discretion, and prudence. God’s blessing was with me, and I became rich. I obtained American citizenship in 1892. In 1902 I met my current wife. Sadly, she could not tolerate the climate in New York, and I went with my dear family back to Kallstadt.
The town was glad to have received a capable and productive citizen. My old mother was happy to see her son, her dear daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter around her; she knows now that I will take care of her in her old age.
But we were confronted all at once, as if by a lightning strike from fair skies, with the news that the High Royal State Ministry had decided that we must leave our residence in the Kingdom of Bavaria. We were paralyzed with fright; our happy family life was tarnished. My wife has been overcome by anxiety, and my lovely child has become sick.
Why should we be deported? This is very, very hard for a family. What will our fellow citizens think if honest subjects are faced with such a decree — not to mention the great material losses it would incur. I would like to become a Bavarian citizen again.
In this urgent situation I have no other recourse than to turn to our adored, noble, wise, and just sovereign lord, our exalted ruler His Royal Highness, highest of all, who has already dried so many tears, who has ruled so beneficially and justly and wisely and softly and is warmly and deeply loved, with the most humble request that the highest of all will himself in mercy deign to allow the applicant to stay in the most gracious Kingdom of Bavaria.
Your most humble and obedient, Friedrich Trump
Yes, this letter was written by Friedrich Trump, Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather. Unfortunately, Prince Luitpold did not grant mercy, so Friedrich and his wife returned to New York—to the country that had taken him in and granted him citizenship. His wife was at the time pregnant with Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, who was therefore born in America rather than Bavaria. Oh, the ironies of history! I pray that our president will let the human experience of his own grandfather open his heart, and that in the fullness of time he will find it in himself to grant the mercy that the Prince of Bavaria did not.