Immigrants are people!

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May 2006

"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,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


This is an excerpt from a poem by Emma Lazarus that is graven beneath the Statue of  Liberty. I first heard thee words in grade school. They represented the values and high ideals of the United States at one time.

            These ideals probably inspired my grandfather, Charles Bufka, who immigrated from Bohema in 1859 prior to the actual writing of these words. He worked in Chicago for twenty years before he bought land in Leelanau County. He built the house where my father, brothers, and I were born.

            I received an email that quoted Theodore Roosevelt’s views on immigration  in the early part of the twentieth century. He declared acceptance of all the immigrants only with serious provisos: they must be assimilated into the American way of life, speak English, and be loyal only to the flag and the American people.

            While those ideals make sense, it seems foolish to brand immigrants as criminals if they don’t meet these conditions, as some of our leaders are wont to do in today’s immigration debate.

            Even though my grandfather became a citizen in 1880, he continued to speak his native language. I wonder if he would have voted for Teddy .

            My father too was fluent in Bohemian while growingup. I oftenheard him speak to friends and siblings in that language. Did this make him a bad citizen?

            I recognize the circumstances of immigration today are much different than they were 100-150 years ago. We then had wide open spaces where immigrants could settle and farm. It was still a largely agricultural economy. Today that opportunity no longer exists.

            There were also the burgeoning cities with industrialization, however, that needed workers. These immigrants fulfilled that need in many cases. Even so, they wre criticized and discriminated against.

            Today’s illegal immigrants are filling a need also by working in jobs that people already here don’t want. By so doing, they are making money and spending it, thus adding to our economy. Because they arrived her under less than favorable circumstances doesn’t mean that the high ideals of America don’t apply to them.

            About a decade ago, I saw the movie, El Norte, which depicted Enrique and Rosa in their struggle to reach the United States from Guatemala. They were teen age brother and sister, who saw the delights of America in an old Good Housekeeping magazine.

            Their father was killed after protesting working conditions in their country.  Their mother disappeared soon after.

            The movie tells the story of their passage through Mexico and efforts to get into the US. Roger Ebert said they ended up arriving through a “rat infested drainage tunnel” and their first sight was the “glittering lights of Los Angeles

            They found jobs in the illegal marketplace as a waiter and a maid. The story is told from their perspective, showing their culture and dignity as human beings.”

How can we assimilate illegal immigrants into our society and culture? Let’s figure out a way to teach them English and the American way of life and what it means to be a citizen.

We should encourage employers with tax credits  for obtaining legal status for their  illegal workers, instead of ignoring them and putting them at risk by unscrupulous employers..

            We need to keep families together. Deportation is not a solution since many of those that would be scheduled for deportation have children born in this country, who are full citizens and therefore entitled to stay here.

            Yes, the situation is different today than a century or so ago, but the wors of President George w. Bush in this regard must be foremost in our discussions and debates: “I know this is an emotional debate, but but one thing we must not lose sight of is that we are talking about human beings, decent human beings  that need to be treated ith respect.” (Quoted by Leonard Pitts)

Those are wise words. We need to heed them in all we say in this debate about illegal immigrants and undocumented aliens.