Swans Commentary » swans.com October 4, 2010  



Special Issue on Immigration


Immigrants On My Mind


by Jonah Raskin



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(Swans - October 4, 2010)   Crossing borders always makes me jittery and with good reason. I've been stopped by immigration officials more than routinely at least a dozen times over the past 50 years -- in San Francisco and Los Angeles when arriving in California; in Tangiers, Morocco at a time in the 1970s when planes were hijacked; in Portland, Oregon once when leaving for home after a vacation; in Dover, England after crossing the English channel; and once in New York in the 1960s when I was wearing a winter coat that was standard issue for sailors in the navy of the USSR. Perhaps that coat was cause for alarm on the part of immigration authorities. But how harmful could a coat be? Heavy as it was, it was more of a burden and a danger to myself than anyone else.

In Dover, I had a suitcase full of posters and flyers gathered in Italy in 1965 at demonstrations I attended to protest the war in Vietnam. On other occasions, I've been frisked, taken into back rooms, interrogated, and detained. Still, I'm a US citizen and have always carried and traveled with a US passport. There have never been any outstanding warrants for my arrest nor have I traveled with drugs or weapons, but I have been stopped and questioned nonetheless, and that can produce anxiety.

I can only imagine what it must feel like to be an immigrant without valid papers, and to cross the U.S. border illegally. It must be hell. That's what Mexican immigrants to the U.S. tell me, and even when they succeed in crossing the border there's always the fear of an arrest. The border is something illegal immigrants carry with them all the time. It moves when they move.

A few years ago, while writing about agricultural labor in California, I gathered stories from Mexicans about their border crossings. I was inspired by The Wall Jumper, a novel by the German writer, Peter Schneider, who collected -- in preparation for his book -- actual accounts of East Germans who scaled the seemingly impenetrable Berlin Wall. Mexicans -- and other immigrants to the U.S. from all over Latin America -- have been no less inventive than the fugitives and renegades from behind what was once known as the Iron Curtain -- a concept that helped to perpetuate the Cold War.

Mexican immigrants have burrowed under the border, waded across it at the Rio Grande, and raced across it on foot sometimes braving traffic on eight-lane highways that serve as walls that move at high velocity. My friend Juan once tried to kiss his way across the border with a woman who was a complete stranger, hoping the authorities would take him and her for a romantic couple. On another occasion, he took a stack of papers, pretended to be a newsboy hawking the morning edition of the local paper -- but he neglected to collect money and that led to his detention. Still, he never gave up and when he finally succeeded it was by scaling a chain link fence with barbed wire across the top.

The will to survive is a powerful motivating force, and almost every Mexican that I know in California has immigrated to the United States to find work, make money, put food on the table -- in short to survive. Immigrants do the kinds of jobs that no one else wants to do, or won't do because citizens feel the pay is too low or because the job seems too demeaning. That means that they will wash dishes, dig ditches, change dirty linen, clean toilets, as well as carry, lift, and transport anything and everything.

My own grandparents were immigrants -- from Russia and Romania -- and all of them had their last names changed by the authorities when they entered the United States at Ellis Island. The Kvitkovs -- my mother's side of the family -- became the Quitkins, for example. My father's father became a peddler, schlepping on his back and in a sack all sorts of things for sale: thread, mirrors, needles, thimbles, and more. When he saved enough money, he opened a small store in a small town where he sold shirts, shoes, and trousers to recent immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, and Ireland. My mother's father carried bricks for a bricklayer until he became a bricklayer himself and built houses of brick in Brooklyn, New York -- until all his children moved away and the neighborhood changed from Jewish to Jamaican. My mother's mother never learned to read or write English and remained in a kind of permanent exile in the U.S. My father's mother did not begin to read English until she was in her 70s. But they both raised families, kept house, and provided shelter and food to immigrant families.

All around me in California, I know Mexicans who have made journeys up the social ladder not unlike the journeys of my own grandparents. If the mothers and fathers don't learn English or master basic social skills, the children usually do by attending school. After all, America really is the land of opportunity, though it's also the land of broken dreams. Juan -- who comes from Guanajuato -- told me that he'd been told that money would be so abundant in the U.S. that he would need a shovel to gather it up in the streets. Our movies have advertised our wealth and our power, seduced millions and brought them here to our shores often to be disillusioned. Immigrants are also walking-talking advertisements for the American dream; when they go back home they often tell stories about their success not about their failures, displaying watches and phones, not reciting facts about the money they owe the bank.

Juan felt a profound sense of loneliness when he arrived in California that afflicted him as much, he says, as his poverty. Away from his family, his village, and with no money and no work, he wandered the streets of San Jose looking for a place where he might sleep. He was fortunate. A family took him in, fed him, and gave him a mattress where he could spend the night. Other immigrants are not as lucky. Sometimes they aren't arrested, but the police impound their vehicles, and without a car or truck they're unable to get to work or find a job.

One undocumented Mexican worker was stranded on a road near me; to get home he phoned a cab and loaded his tools -- thousands of dollars' worth -- into the trunk. The cab driver raced off, and the Mexican worker never called the police; he did not see any point in doing so or believe that the police would help him. Immigrants can be passive victims of the system -- afraid to protest or file a complaint when their rights are violated because to do so would lift them above their protective anonymity and place them in danger of deportation.

Last week I spent a day with Homero, a Mexican from Oaxaca, who has no papers and who works as a gardener for several white families and in construction building houses. But California and the nation are in the depths of a recession and work is hard to come by. Unable to work 40-hour weeks, Homero worries that he won't be able to feed his two sons who live with him in California, and that he also won't be able to wire money back to his wife and daughters in Mexico. He's visibly distraught.

Since his sons aren't citizens he worries too that they won't be eligible for scholarships to attend college once they graduate from high school. Without scholarships, college will likely be impossible for them and they will not have the advantages of earlier generations. My own aunts and uncles were able to attend college in New York because college was free at the City University of New York and at Brooklyn College. In my own family, two generations of immigrants were able to benefit from public education. But those opportunities are largely denied immigrants today, and so the crisis of immigration has escalated.

Of course, the travails of immigrants to the U.S. and to other countries around the world have been written about for hundreds of years in fiction, memoir, history, and poetry. Immigration is a global crisis, a global problem, and not limited to any one country. So the literature of immigrants belongs to almost every culture in the world. From my point of view, one of the most insightful writers about immigrants, refugees, aliens and so-called "undesirables" is B. Traven, the author best known for the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Traven understood -- from his own experience in Europe after World War One -- as well as any 20th-century writer, the predicament of the immigrant. In Treasure, he writes about North American immigrants in Mexico who are forced to become prospectors and to dig for gold in the mountains. In The Death Ship, he writes about an American sailor who has no papers and no country to call his own. He bounces across the continent of Europe, evades the authorities until he finds the kind of labor that only an "undesirable" (in the eyes of the law) immigrant will do -- aboard a ship on which the men are worked to death. Then, in his six jungle novels he wrote about the Indians of Chiapas who are captured, forced to march into the forests to harvest mahogany and to live in a dictatorship.

Traven understood that the immigrant was society's beast of burden, scapegoat, and sacrificial lamb. In his fiction, he showed that the immigrant formed the bedrock of humanity on which the society was built. At the same time, he depicted the immigrant as the invisible man, invisible woman, and invisible child who could be and was disposed of when it suited the needs of the society-at-large.

Toil, indignities, and persecution take a toll, but they can make immigrants very inventive and creative. Indeed, they devise means to avoid capture and deportation, find work, save money, and reunite with families. Spanish-speaking radio stations in California sometimes broadcast information about raids and enable immigrant to avoid them.

Homeland Security has made it harder for them to beat the system, and immigrants also play into the system, though on their own they can't and don't defeat themselves. It also takes persistence from manipulative politicians like C. M. Goethe, a member of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies, an organization that launched attacks on Mexican immigrants during the Depression of the 1930s.

"Marijuana, perhaps now the most insidious of our narcotics, is a direct by-product of unrestricted Mexican immigration," Goethe noted in 1935 in the run-up to the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 that made marijuana illegal all across the U.S. Goethe continued, "Easily grown, it has been asserted that it has recently been planted between rows in a California penitentiary garden. Mexican peddlers have been caught distributing sample marijuana cigarettes to schoolchildren." Now, 75 years later, American politicians make much the same sort of inflammatory comments, conflating drugs and Mexican immigrants. If we're to believe law enforcement, Mexicans belong to cartels and cartels run the drug trade.

Granted, Mexicans grow, sell and smoke marijuana. But so do immigrants from nearly every country, and from almost every ethnic group in the world. Mexicans aren't alone in the crowd of marijuana smokers and dealers. Mexican immigrants have been targeted and demonized perhaps more than any other group. This past summer Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, insisted that Mexican immigrants were by-and-large smugglers and that they were bringing illicit drugs into the country. With that one sweeping speech that was carried around the world, she besmirched all of the immigrants from one country. Moreover, she whipped up animosity toward Mexicans and fueled ignorance about marijuana.

Sadly, Americans seem easily swayed by politicians who whip up hatred of immigrants, though ironically Americans themselves are overwhelmingly immigrants. Indeed, all of us, including Indians and African Americans have come here from other parts of the world, some before others, some after others. If the descendants of immigrants hate immigrants, is it possible that Americans hate themselves?

It seems time to stop hating, stop projecting our own inner fears and terrors on immigrants, and stop demonizing them. They're not the cause of the recession or the global economic crisis, but victims of it. I know that my own Russian and Romanian born grandparents and millions like them didn't cause the Depression of the 1930s. They suffered greatly because of unemployment and the failure of the banks. I believe that the new wave of immigrants from around the world -- including the new wave of Russian immigrants -- aren't the cause of today's problem either. The blame game is awfully old and stale. Immigrants of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your own fear and a world to gain.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/raskin03.html
Published October 4, 2010