I have a friend who came to the United States from Chile, fleeing the Pinochet regime. I see the irony in fleeing Chile to the United States because of Pinochet, but lets set that aside. On September 12, 2001, he called me to tell me he was going to give up his law practice to join the military, the NSA, the CIA, or whatever he could do to help. “This country gave me everything,” he said. “Now, if it needs me, I need to be there.”
I have another friend, this one from Afghanistan. Her family fled in the 1980s, after the Soviets invaded. Her father became a doctor here. She became a lawyer. We spoke recently about what it was to “love your country.” I could not claim to “love” my country. My family? Sure. My home town? Yes. That doesn’t mean I hate the United States, but I could not call what I feel for it “love.” I live here. I’m invested in the place. But, if it fit with my family and professional plans, I could just as easily live in Cabo San Lucas and never look back.
My “migrant” friend from Afghanistan? She loves this country. Just like my Chilean friend, she feels that the United States gave her and her family shelter when they needed it. America took them in, gave them an opportunity for a better life, and she loves this place as much, or more, than anyone I know.
My own Great grandmother was the same. She came from Sicily, and loved America so much that she went back and brought half the town with her. She almost immediately became naturalized, and never looked back. The way she saw it, she left hunger and fear behind, and landed in a place of safety and opportunity.
This is the immigrant experience that I know. I take America for granted. It came easy to me. I popped out at the right place, at the right time, and they stuck American citizenship in my hands as an entitlement. I did not have to work for it. I did not dream of it. It was not something that I ever yearned for. It isn’t that I have no affection for it — after all, I’ve devoted my career to defending the Constitution. You don’t do that if you are just “meh” about your country. But love?
Not the way immigrants love America.
So lets square that with xenophobia about Syrian immigrants. I presume that if you read my blog, you have some degree of intelligence, which puts you statistically more likely to welcome immigrants than reject them. Although there are plenty of super smart people who would rather they not come here, the critical mass of anti-immigrant sentiment does not come from our Fulbright Scholar program. Lets just put it that way.
But who are these people? Who are these Americans who would prefer to pull up the ladder, now that their families have climbed up onto America’s warm and welcoming decks? Are they nazis, as they’ve been called? Are they awful people? Are they cruel?
If you are in favor of opening our doors to poor huddled masses, then you’re likely thinking about these immigrants as individuals. You’re thinking of them one person to another. You are empathizing with them as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters. You see the little boy lying face down on the beach in Turkey, dead, and you think “how could that be better than him living here?”
And then you get angry. And then you think, “anyone who disagrees with me is awful.”
No. They are not awful. They are afraid.
They look at this problem on a macro level. Imagine for a moment, you are on a boat. There is room to carry 10 people safely. An 11th is in the water, reaching for the side of the boat. If he comes in, the boat will be 10% more likely to capsize, and everyone will drown. You might say “that is worth it.” That is a wonderful and kind position to take. I hope that is the position I would take, if I were in that situation. But, you can not argue that the contrary position is evil. In fact, if the bleeding heart is the only one making decisions, what happens when the 12th, 13th, or 14th person shows up? Where do you draw the line? Eventually, if you help everyone, the boat will capsize. Eventually, you have to either leave someone in the water, or you all sink.
I’m not saying that logic fits when it comes to immigrants. Immigrants usually wind up making the boat bigger. My Afghan friend? Her family took public assistance, and had to pay it all back. It took some time, but the government didn’t just take your tax dollars and give it to her family as a gift. But, lets say that they didn’t pay it back. She employs people at her law firm. She created jobs. The rest of her family, similarly, gave plenty to us. We gave them their lives, they gave us a doctor, a lawyer, and made the boat a little bigger. At the end of the day, immigrants usually are a net positive — not a drain.
But what about the fear that they will “take our jobs?” In my comfy gated community, all the men who keep the grass nice and the bushes trimmed happen to be immigrants from Latin America. Did they steal my job? I’m neither qualified for, nor do I want that job. Is there an American standing in line to get his welfare check, who would rather be doing that?
If you were born here, with the immediate advantage of speaking English and having a U.S. passport, and your family has been here for one, two, ten generations, and you can’t compete with Juan, then that says more about you than it does about him.
No, you’re not angry at Juan. You’re afraid of him. You’re afraid because you called a 1-800 number, and it said “por español, marque numero nueve.” That’s scary. You spent your whole life here, studying English, and now all of a sudden, there is this language you don’t understand, and people around you are conducting business in it. You might go to Miami and walk into a store and realize, nobody speaks your language. You might walk through Los Angeles, and wind up in a neighborhood where you don’t even know what language they’re speaking, much less understand it.
That can be scary.
Me? I think its fantastic. No, I’m not a better person. I’m just afraid of different things. I’m not afraid of immigrants, or foreign languages, or “strange customs.” I wish we had mandatory bilingual education in the United States. But, that’s me. Other people find that scary.
You know what else some people think is scary? When they see people on T.V. who blow up planes and shopping malls, and they look weird to them. They’re swarthy and wearing weird clothes, speaking weird languages. Then, you get on a plane, and right there in 14B next to you, is Beardsley McTurbanhead, and he looks exactly (to you, at least) like the guy you saw on TV. And you know what? Eventually, someone is going to come to the United States in a crowd of refugees, and he is going to be an ISIS agent, and he is going to blow something up in the United States. It will happen.
That is scary.
But, you know what else? Someone might charge into my kids school with a machine gun. Some random guy on the street might want my wallet, and he gets scared that I’ll call the police after I give it to him, so he stabs me. That washing machine on the pickup truck in front of me might break loose, and fall off, and land right on my face. I might swim in a public pool that has e coli in it, and die.
Or ISIS could just recruit some Irish kid from the housing projects in Southie, or a black kid from New Orleans, someone who feels like their life is meaningless, who feels like this country hasn’t ever given them anything, and who thinks they can make some difference for something. Someone with an American passport is just as likely to work for ISIS as Beardsley McTurbanhead.
Yeah, so be scared of that too.
Despite all these fears, the government could keep us all 99.99% safe. But, we wouldn’t like what our country would look like. Lets say that they put surveillance cameras in every room in our homes, tracking devices in our spines, had someone track every dollar we spend, and every second we pass. Every meal we eat is regulated, every time we go to the bathroom, we ask for permission. We could remove all fear. But, who would watch the watchers? Could we trust anyone with that kind of power?
So what can we do?
Fucked if I know.
If I were on that boat, you would probably have to knock me out to keep me from pulling more people out of the water. Its not that I’m a better person. Arguably, the better person is the guy who would knock me out, and save the 10 of us from drowning, at the cost of that one guy we left in the water. Some might even call that courage. I might call it courage to fight your inherent humanity, to watch someone die, to save other people. I do not have the courage to do that.
But, for now, what do we do? Our boat is not about to capsize. There is room in the boat. Juan is not going to take your job. You are not going to be forced to learn Farsi. But a lot of people think that all those things are going to happen. And their fear is both currency and poison. That fear is the currency that you see being cashed in during a lot of political speeches. And that fear is what they use to divide us, to make sure that we don’t focus on the fact that the boat would fit 20 people, but one guy decided to take up half the boat with his suitcases full of supplies — supplies he is not going to share with the other nine of us.
But that poison that eats away at us keeps getting spent. Those checks get cashed, and then the fear currency gains value. And right now, fear currency is the best investment a politician can make. Unfortunately, the return on that investment is power. And power gained through fear is scary fucking power.
That is what I am afraid of.
If you’re with me, you need to recognize that our job is to figure out how to make them less afraid. This is not going to be easy, especially since the fear investors are glued to FOX, which tries to scare the shit out of them 24/7. It is not going to be easy, because in part, they want to be afraid.
But, if you can understand that they’re afraid, maybe you can figure out how to make that change. I lack the intellect or the creativity to figure it out myself, but maybe someone reading this has a clue. If you do, lets hear it — because I’m afraid.