Monday, December 27, 2010

Sounds like Salem

My dad reminded me the other day of the trip we made to the Salem Witch Museum when he was going to school in Boston. I was about 10-years-old and the part I remember the most about the experience was that I was hoping for something Disney, and instead it was disappointingly historical.

Dad mentioned the tests they did during the Salem Witch trials to determine if someone were a witch.  Things like putting a rock on your chest.  If it crushed you, you were exonerated and if not, you were killed as a witch.  We look at that and wonder how people could allow things like that to happen, and yet it is a theme that has been repeated throughout history.  The Inquisition. French Revolution. The Nazi's. McCarthy. And the odd thing is that in the beginning, if you listen to the rhetoric, people who are searching out witches begin sounding noble in their quest. It is always about safety and protection with a healthy dose of why people should fear the ones being sought out.  History shows us that it never plays out that way.  The witch hunt promises safety and peace, but delivers cruelty to innocents.

Last week, I walked up to the counter at a drug store and a man coming from the opposite direction accidentally stepped in front of me.  He looked up apologetically and started to step back but I smiled and waved him forward.  He was only holding a chapstick. I was holding enough items that it was going to take awhile. He nodded appreciatively and smiled back.

The clerk eyed him suspiciously. It was obvious the man worked outdoors.  He was a little sunburned--maybe wind burned--and his English wasn't very good. (In fact, I don't think he spoke English at all.) The clerk's annoyance was obvious from the beginning.  When the man handed him a ten dollar bill from his pocket the clerk said: "This is one of the old ones. I don't even know if I should take this."  With much disgust, the clerk put it in the register.  He looked at me conspiratorially when I stepped to the counter and said, "It is probably counterfeit."  I told him that I seriously doubted it.  After all, if I were going to all the trouble to make counterfeit money I would definitely be doing it in denominations higher than tens.

The man glared at me and finished the transaction.

If you watch the news, you are probably aware of what has been happening in Arizona. And the thing is that the rhetoric is based in reality.  Stop drug trafficking, safety for policemen, protect our borders... No one wants the violence of Tiajuana, Juarez or Durango on our soil. In those cities kidnappings and murders are at cop drama levels.  And yet, there is the witch hunt.

To be fair, there is ignorance fueling the debate.  Most Americans believe it is possible to immigrate here from Mexico legally.  If it were, people would pursue that route.  After all, saving money to pay a coyote to take you across and the actual journey of getting here is treacherous. People die doing it every year.

But the legal methods aren't even possible in a lifetime. The waiting list is around 30 years.  For those who are here, if they didn't get real papers through amnesty in the Reagan era, it is likely they've been bilked out of thousands by an immigration attorney, had a short-term marriage with a citizen or have fake papers altogether.  All of this for first-generation immigrants working at fast food jobs, construction sites, as nannies... For people living in low-rent apartments trying to protect barely running cars in a place where tow trucks look for expired stickers so they can impound them and sell them at auction.  (Can you imagine prioritizing $65 for annual registration when you only make $7.25 an hour?)

I am angry that a system that is so broken can't be fixed. That the millions being paid into fake social security numbers incentivize leaving it broken.  I'm angry that the only solution on the table seems to be to round people up and ship them back. But I think I'm more angry that we have so many living in our country who are treated like the man at the drugstore counter.  And I fear the language of the witch hunt...

We don't have to extend citizenship to all. But we do need a system in place that acknowledges that there are poor people gambling on "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me..."
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