My Turn: A call for reflection about immigrants

Do we want a future Hispanic majority to have memories of persecution?

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2006

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My forebears sneaked into the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. As it turned out, there was no need for that kind of skulking about, since there was then no actual border between Canada and its southern neighbor, a state of affairs that had been decreed by the textile manufacturers of New England.

And so I hope I'll be forgiven a certain sympathy for my Hispanic brothers, whose borders have been similarly dissolved and whose growing numbers in this country have precipitated calls for action from a number of groups.

President Bush is pushing for a "guest worker" program. The phrase is a direct translation of "Gastarbeiter," the name Germans give to imported drudges - many of whom, even after nearly half a century, continue to be denied the basic rights of citizenship in that benighted country.

As you would expect, Mr. Bush's program (see "textile manufacturers of New England," above) is aimed at capping wages - though now on a national scale - and at reaping the incidental benefits of slave labor and sweatshops. To his credit, your president recognizes the fact that an 11-million-strong bloc of "undocumented" bodies exists among the rest of us legitimate folk. To his detriment, he doesn't know that there is nothing he can do about it.

In "opposition" are those who would make criminals of immigrants and of those of us who would help immigrants survive in this increasingly frightened and xenophobic nation (see "Germans," above). This is to be expected: Jingoists and bigots are especially likely to float to the surface during wartime. But, unlike the president, these do understand there is nothing they can do about the problem except to use it to frighten the electorate in the right direction.

You would expect the spokesmen and spokeswomen at the rallies and on the newscasts and in the newspapers to articulate, if not a solution, then at least ways and means of ameliorating the often appalling conditions these underground workers (and, yes, underground citizens) must suffer. But the speeches, for the most part, are opaque, now hinting at a coalition with American labor, now smacking of south-of-the-border demagoguery, and never offering anything more substantial than to advise that it might not be politically wise to wipe America's face with the Guatemalan flag.

The Catholic Church has been upfront about its support of the immigrants. This may be answering the call to Christian duty or it may simply be a nod to the fact that the church's principal constituency in the United States is now or soon will be Hispanic.

No matter: I propose that we follow the Catholic example, because, like theirs, America's principal constituency will soon be Hispanic.

Demographers have been telling us for some time that because of immigration and their predilection for relatively large families, Hispanics will within a few years constitute a majority in the United States. Do we want such a powerful bloc to build its solidarity with memories of neglect and even persecution?

If that happens, count on it, a certain new minority will be introduced to an American tradition it hadn't thought enough about before becoming a minority.

• Fern Chandonnet is a retired journalist who lives in Juneau.

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