Birthright

Thursday, December 20, 2007 

For most of the past 8 months, I’ve been working in Houston, commuting from my home and office in Maryland to an area up and down I-45 just north of the downtown where almost everyone is Hispanic.  These are people, primarily of Mexican heritage, who are in the lower half of our economy.  Many were born here, others are recent immigrants, some legal, some not.

I’m not Hispanic, as you’ve no doubt guessed.  I once asked the two temps who I hired to work with me – both of them Americans whose parents were legal immigrants – how they thought of me, wondering if they were aware of my ethnic background which was as obvious from my surname as their history was from theirs.  “Les,” they laughed back at me, “you’re a white guy!”  I am at that.  More to the point, I am the grandson of immigrants who came here a long time ago, unable to speak the language, and whose native culture had nothing to do with the America they found waiting for them.  They came for the freedom and opportunity to make a living.  They came to work, they did well, and I and my cousins and our children are the legacy of their enterprise and example.  Good for them, and even better for our country.

These Hispanics are remarkable people, smart, friendly, happy, hardworking, and determined to succeed.  You can see it in their eyes, in the smile that comes so easily to their faces, in the kindness and patience they show to strangers, the long hours they work, the sacrifices they are willing to make, and in the way they take care of their immediate and extended families and friends.

Yes, given what little you know of my own history, you’re probably thinking that I am a sucker for immigrants.  You bet I am.  I like the very idea of what they represent – people who leave their native countries to come here to work.  To work.  Let’s be honest with each other, just between you and me, hasn’t it ever occurred to you that many Americans who identify less with their immigrant heritage don’t work all that hard, but choose instead to participate more or less passively in our economy?  What makes them, what makes me any better than these “Mexicans” as some white businessmen I know are wont to call them, regardless of where they were born?  Nothing.  They are my grandparents, happening all over again.  I respect their work ethic, and applaud their spirit.

As for people of this initiative and commitment to our country, we shouldn’t be arguing about ways to keep them out.  We should be in Mexico recruiting them, perhaps offering to exchange them for less enterprising long-term Americans.  I don’t have any solution for the immigration debate except that we need to be honest with and about ourselves.  Rampant, uncontrolled immigration is certainly a serious problem for many reasons.  And it can be, for many of us, uncomfortable and disconcerting to watch the face and feel of our communities changing before our eyes.  Difficult, to be sure, but it is nonetheless un-American and unwise to fear, instead of encourage competition in the workplace.  We simply cannot afford to protect the way things are at the expense of the opportunity to make them better.  We are who we are, personally and as a people, because of the immigrants who came before us.

If the history of the United States means anything, it is that there is no birthright per se, that who you are is what you make of yourself, and not something that is handed down to you by accident of parentage or geography.  On behalf of my own grandparents, long gone, let me offer the argument that – other than the technicality of where they were born – these legal and illegal immigrants, by virtue of their enterprise and example, are as much Americans as you and me.

We need to restart the debate over immigration with this simple sentiment, “Welcome to the United States,” and see where it goes from there.

(If you’re interested in the problem of illegal immigration, be sure to read “Stemming the Tide,” also published on WordFeeder.) 

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