Oh say can you see the red, white, and green? Let's wave-off immigration hysteria.
A SCREAMING EAGLE EMBLEM AMIABLY WAVED in street demonstrations all over the country recently, but this flagging eagle didn't make Americans' chests swell with pride; it made a lot of their faces contort in anger. Turns out it was the wrong eagle. Not the beloved, purple-mountain scaling raptor who accompanies the flag of the United States of America, but its snake chewing, rio-skimming southern cousin, the Azteca birdie who screeches across the banner of that other U.S., the Estados Unidos de México.
Nanoseconds after the predominantly Mexican demonstrators paraded for immigration reform in their variant of March madness, the sputtering classes erupted in a patriotic, saliva-drenched frenzy, denouncing any who dared fly the red, white, and green within our freedom-loving borders. This may have been the first time mass flag burning has ever been promoted by conservative media.
I find myself wondering, however, if it wasn't the colors on the flags they carried but the color of the skin on the faces of most of the protesters that propelled the outrage among America's talk radio and cable news demagogues. Aren't these the same guys you have to elbow out of the way on St. Patrick's Day? Columbus Day? Fill-in-your-favorite-European-descent-group-celebration day?
Our occasional attempts at "fixing" immigration do tend to bring out the worst in our political culture, generating the strangest of historical memory lapses, as the by-now well-heeled great-grandchildren of people abused by the "Know Nothings" of America's past step forward to berate whatever new generation of migrants land, tired and tempest-tossed, on these shores. Economists seem capable of reviewing the same data before informing us that immigrant masses are both a drain and a boon while usually dependable xenophobes, dazzled by the prospect of all that desperate, low-cost labor, transform into immigration cheerleaders.
Ultimately all the rhetoric from both sides of this particular political line is likely to be irrelevant. Movement is part of the history of humanity, migrations in search of food, water, safety, peace. Long before the advent of something called borders and entities called nation-states, people have been on the move from somewhere worse to somewhere better. Throwing up pathetically transitory obstacles in the face of such movements is likely futile. As long as bread won't come to the people, the people will come to the bread.
If we were to get serious about the so-called problem of immigration, we wouldn't be debating better border barriers or new ways to repackage indentured servitude. We might begin, however, by trying to be better neighbors.
The political, cultural, and economic integration established in Europe in the weary aftermath of World War II worked over the long haul because the agreements that established the European community built in regional economic development as an integral part of the process. E.U. member states helped poorer neighbors grow their economies such that a historically impoverished nation like Ireland is now the economic powerhouse of the E.U. Its citizens are no longer emigrating to other nations, but returning home—from U.S. cities where they have lived as "illegals" for years without generating much ire—to join in the bonanza.
Catholic leaders such as cardinals theodore McCarrick of Washington and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles have taken the lead in guiding the pilgrim church through this potentially divisive issue, calling for compassion and solidarity and recalling the Holy Family's long ago migration into Egypt. But our solidarity with our migrant brothers and sisters must be much more than spiritual.
In no other region in the world is so rich a nation as the United States pressed up against so poor a neighbor as Mexico. Our national fates are intertwined by geography, by treaty, and more and more by family. We in the north have not asked ourselves what we are prepared to sacrifice to be better neighbors to Mexico and the other poor nations of Central America where "our" immigration problem begins.
If the U.S. of A. wants citizens from the U.S. of M. to stop crossing the line, it needs to reach across the border to offer a hand up, to help build Mexico into a nation worth staying in and the U.S. into a neighbor that can be relied on.
Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the June 2006 (Volume 71, Number 6; page 38 issue of U.S. Catholic.