Crossing the Border: Immigration & the Founding Fathers

Crossing the Border: Immigration & the Founding Fathers

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The long weekend of burgers, beer and firecrackers is a time of respite for most Americans at the height of the vacation season. Yet, these days also call for a sober contemplation on the Founding Fathers as a remarkable group of men who forged from the crucible of a contentious, monarchical Europe our most vital, unifying vision of ourselves as Americans—We the People.

Far from perfect and all too aware of “passions of men,” they created the Constitution as an enduring document that considered the worst and celebrated the best of human potentials. Slaveholders and philanderers, the Founding Fathers' words would in time emancipate slaves and inspire women to earn parity. Politicians and patriarchs who would lead a gathering nation to wipe out its First People, they were also learned and compassionate. Multi-lingual, they would shape a largely English-speaking nation that would conceive of no need for a second language. Well-read, they would have scarcely foreseen of progenies who would accuse their president of being "professorial" for speaking in complete sentences.

The architects of the American idea were inventors and authors, soldiers, farmers and diplomats of differing, often clashing, notions. Yet they were united in a single, most powerful belief that found the intrinsic value of each human being transcendent of birthrights, inviting the largest, most enduring waves of migration in human history to these shores.

Today, that spirit of inclusion is being eroded by the de-facto formation of a new American slavery which lets people cross this country's southern border under treacherous conditions and without documents to serve obediently at small wages in jobs that most citizens would not accept. Just as African slavery led to a devastating Civil War whose toll of Americans exceeds all lives lost in foreign wars to date, the virtual Latin American slavery is also creating alarming fissures in our body politic.

Securing America's southern border along California's relatively small expanse has moved border crossers eastward into Arizona and Texas where most of the 1,969-mile boundary stretches along a vast, often inhospitable and unmanageable terrain. The past two decades have seen 2,000 fatalities among people who have made the trek north from Mexico. The ostensible criminalization of immigration has also invited narco-traffickers and human traffickers, gunrunners and money launderers to operate along a porous, lawless divide, costing American lives, threatening national security and putting all immigrants in the crosshairs of outrage.

Meanwhile, official Washington keeps speaking of a "broken immigration system" and the need for an "overhaul"—as if a conflict which touches upon America's very national identity is a bureaucratic glitch awaiting a legislative fix.

It took the Civil War for Americans to realize their grave injustice toward a people who had been brought to this country in chains. Today, there is a similar failure to realize that when 12 million people serve the American population at large, branding them as "illegal immigrants" only denotes a systemic will that favors the interests of giant agribusiness, manufacturing, hospitality and service industries at the peril of the very people who constitute their indispensable labor force.

This Independence Day calls for renewing our conviction in three common yet uncommon words, “We the People,” to include farm laborers, factory workers, construction workers, nannies, gardeners, janitors, cooks, food servers, dishwashers, cashiers, clerks, painters, carpet installers, movers, drivers, security guards, housekeepers, chamber maids and business owners, not to mention high school graduates with no way forward who were brought to this country by undocumented immigrant parents.

Among the best of American ideals are the ideas that we do not trample on the vulnerable, abandon those who need help and become prideful and dismissive when others suffer. It is precisely these ideals that are now being put to test, not only in immigration detention centers and courts, but also in farms and factories, in households and communities across America where immigrants play integral roles without being equal in this "one nation, under God."

Today, both sides in the immigration debate should quit their obsession with the litany of hollow terms such as "amnesty," "a path to citizenship" and "going to the end of the line" so they may entertain a far larger, more powerful vision of who we are after a young century's first turbulent decade which has seen our cities under attack by enemies from without and the near depletion of our material means due to boundless greed from within. All of us—documented or undocumented, descendants from the Mayflower or tenants in Queens and East Los Angeles—have endured these times together, bound by a perpetual American optimism which always envisions a better tomorrow.

Only the ogres of divisiveness and exclusion can cloud our common purpose, compromising the very idea that makes us Americans.