A Greenfuse reprise from #69 May 2006
The current controversy over what is called immigration is truly about the concept of migration, an ingrained human impulse that has added to our success as a species. My immediate experience of migration is limited to status as a domestic refugee, fleeing the twilight zone of suburbia. Unable to afford low end housing in my high rent home town; I was leveraged into the quasi ghetto of the San Francisco peninsula. First on the border of a busy boulevard, with bizarre juxtapositions of commerce peppered between drab apartment buildings- appeased by a tiny swimming pool in the din of neo-urbanity. Followed by the more pleasant sylvan slum of the unincorporated county fringe, where my substandard, sublet, converted garage ended up under water in winter. Of course greener pastures were to be desired. A triumphant return to the under belly of San Francisco, having decided to never live there again without sufficient funds, was predicated on the recognition of the fact that cities are where they keep the money! The plan: go there, get some, and get out. My mission was accomplished in my version of my immediate ancestor’s search for their place in the sun, and their turn of the century migrations.
My grandparents were born in: Japan (via the diplomatic corp), Mexico, New York, and San Francisco, from wildly different backgrounds. What they all share is a family history of migration in search of better circumstances. My paternal great grandparents were of Bavarian and French descent, at least one of whom left their homeland to avoid conscription in the German army. A mighty need for change and opportunity must have driven the later migration from Arkansas, through pre-canal Panama on donkey back and on to San Francisco that my great grandmother took as a two years old. Both sides of my father’s family were in California by 1852. Not content with merely immigrating to a new continent, they pushed onto the roughest edge of the frontier to find their fortune. My maternal grandmother’s parents were from the foot of Italy- Calabria, and Sicily. Landing in New York, they eventually fled west for some semi rural merchant class entrepreneurship, and a more Mediterranean, land based lifestyle. My Grandmother learned to speak Spanish by tending the family store that served the Hispanic immigrant population of the former Mexican territory. One of these recent immigrants became my Grandfather. A product of small town rural Mexico, his mother was half French, from the migration of soldiers and colonists that followed Napoleon’s brief acquisition of Mexico. I’m not sure how Grandpa entered the country, but it is a safe bet that walking was involved, and train’s I imagine. If trains were his link to the U.S., they also made him a middle class American with his lengthy tenure as Southern Pacific Rail man. Working his way up from gardening in San Diego, to mineral mine trackman, to Rail yard supervisor, he ended up in his in-law’s tri-lingual, semi-rural edge of San Jose. When of age my mother vowed to never again live in San Jose, and eventually moved along the old mission trail, El Camino Real, south, and back again San Diego to Monterey. My father following opportunity migrated to Hawaii in 1967. People seek their place in the sun- or snow like my families Japanese exchange student, who ended up in college in Oregon and Los Angeles, and now lives in Switzerland. We all want to find the place we can prosper, live in peace, and hopefully enjoy living with family and friends. Doesn’t that best serve our common purpose? There are literally billions, of variations on this story of human migration that have made our country and others what they are. So, it is no surprise that the most widespread and largest demonstrations ever seen in this country followed the proposed criminalization and marginalization of immigrants.
In April the Courts reversed a Los Angeles ordinance that criminalized sleeping on sidewalks, a violation with penalties of up to 6 months in jail and/or $1000 fine. The Court in it’s decision found that it is an unavoidable consequence of being human that when one has no home, one must sleep somewhere. Therefore, unless the city offers beds to the homeless they have no right to punish sleeping publicly. I would argue that this “unavoidable consequence of being human” defense could justify the migration towards a better chance of opportunity, safety, and prosperity. Unless an unlikely global redistribution of wealth occurs, needful migrations can never be criminal acts. Support of immigrant rights is nothing less than support of human rights. The idea that a nation exists with a unity of purpose, a mono-linguistic identity, and unchangeable borders is a relatively new concept abstractly realized in great part by the work of romantically idealistic German philosophers of the 18th century that championed the fad of patriotism and national identity that eventually blossomed into fascism. The flux of national boundaries and what they have represented over the span of modern history proves the folly of nationalism. Old Europe addressed the major cause of centuries of war by intentionally tying the economies of Europe together as one common interest and open borders, consciously subverting the “need” for armed conflict among themselves. In the new world, the 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar dreamed of an organization of American states to settle disputes and provide mutual protection, and a unified Latin America that serves the needs of the people.
The fact is, all humans aspire to the same things, and the borders that “protect” us also serve to isolate us from the potential of progressive unity. In our unjust world the U.S. acts as a pressure valve for the struggling people of Latin America. If we close that valve, the pressures south of the border will splash all over us when it finds release. Fear of open borders is in part is in part a fear that our standard of living could fall as the flood of immigrants overwhelm us, but how long can our border control really avoid the natural leveling effect of over population, over exploitation, and over expectation? Eduardo Galeano observed in his historical indictment of imperialistic colonization, “Open Veins of Latin America” that when we, the civilized societies of the north, look to the south, we must realize we are not looking into our primitive past, but rather into our future- the logical result of 500 years of abuse, exploitation and nationalism.