We Americans have immortalized Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses . . .” But we have rarely meant a word of it.
We have seldom welcomed immigrants to our shores for humanitarian reasons, only when we needed them economically; Irish for New England’s textile mills and to clean the homes of the wealthy; Poles and Italians to work Pennsylvania’s coal mines and steel mills; Germans and Eastern Europeans for the manufacturing plants of the Midwest; Jews for New York’s garment industry. The list could go on.
“Huddled masses?” These poor, miserable people were “huddled” all right; huddled into filthy, disease-ridden ghettoes to serve as cheap adult and child labor.
Whenever people don’t want to deal with perplexing situations they pin pejorative labels on them, demonize them and thus avoid the real issues. The huddled immigrant masses were despised as wops, kikes, polocks, hunkies, dagoes, micks, greasers, kraut heads et. al. But in spite of all the prejudice and discrimination, by the second or third generation these immigrant foreigners had become fully American.
Today in the Catoosa County phone directory (and, unfortunately, also in local police reports) along with Smith, Jones and MacDonald we are beginning to see Gonzalez, Ramirez and Sanchez. But we also see these names in the high school graduating classes and athletic team rosters, particularly soccer.
In spite of Donald Trump’s rantings, we are not going to send these people back. For better or for worse, we are going to have to deal with them. But, rather surprisingly, we are handling the fact of immigration, most of it illegal, much better than our forebears dealt with the massive legal immigrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Nobody is elated about the sudden influx of Hispanics for which we were totally unprepared. But through our institutions, e.g. our churches, schools and local governments, we are coping with the situation. And with God’s help, we will continue to do so.
To our everlasting credit, there has been no revival of the Klan or the John Birch Society and no Skinheads or new hate groups loom on the horizon.
An uncomfortable reality about which we don’t like to talk is the fact that our current birth rate is headed to below replacement levels. Our population numbers could easily shrink. In order to continue to afford social services, including Social Security and Medicare, more people must enter the work force each year to pay for them. But there will be no more baby booms. Immigration by younger people appears the only way to bridge this gap.
We must also realize that unless we happen to be 100 percent Cherokee, Choctaw or of some other Native American blood, in a way we are all immigrants, and illegal immigrants at that. Few Native Americans ever admitted foreign immigrants to their country. Our forefathers mostly came here illegally and by force.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.