Immigration, Risks and Hopes

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “Really resolving the problem of illegal immigration.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (May 12): 9A.

It’s hard not to be deeply troubled by the public debate over Arizona’s recent enactment of legislation concerning illegal residents. The issues involved are difficult but not really new.

As I consider my own response, I find myself thinking about what President Obama said in his April 25 eulogy for 29 miners killed in the recent West Virginia coal mining disaster. “Our task” he said, “…is to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners like they treat each other – like a family. Because we are all family and we are all Americans and we have to lean on one another.” ”They understood there were risks,” he added, “and their families did. But they had gone into the mines to follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers to provide for their families. “It was,” he concluded, “all in the hopes of something better.”

Risks, families, footsteps, hope. The words cause me to reflect on my own family history and how it might relate to the contemporary situation.

Would it surprise you to learn that all of my forbearers were immigrants? Roughly half of them appear to have been of English descent, whereas the other half was basically Welsh and Irish.

That’s where the interesting part begins. Last summer I was saddened to learn that in the years immediately prior to the Civil War one of my father’s mother’s grandfathers owned three slaves in western Tennessee. Some of his family probably helped crush a rebellion in 1856, which resulted in the gruesome execution of six freedom seekers. But in 1862 his slaves surely were thrilled to learn of General U.S. Grant’s victories over Confederate troops at Forts Henry and Donelson just a few miles from my great-great-grandfather’s farm.

About thirty years later in the dusty mining town of Rock Springs (Wyoming Territory), my Welsh great-grandfather joined a hundred or so other Welsh coal miners in killing about 35 Chinese miners who had been brought in by the Union Pacific Railroad to put downward pressure on wages and undercut efforts to unionize the miners. Just a few months later my 33-year old great-grandmother died of pneumonia, leaving her jobless husband with three children. One of those children was my 3-year old grandmother.

These two men did evil things. Were they evil men? I don’t think so. As I read it, my Welsh great-grandfather and his fellow Welsh and Chinese miners were manipulated by Union Pacific’s successful effort to pit one group against the other. Likewise I see my great-great-grandfather in Tennessee as being a creature of his time, not brave enough (or wise enough) to recognize and reject an evil practice.

Which leads me back to Arizona. Why are Mexican and Central American men and women risking their lives and that of their children by crossing into Arizona illegally, following in the footsteps of those who have gone before? Because conditions are so harsh in Mexico and Central America and because their hope of finding better opportunities on the other side is so strong that they think the risk is worth it. Why do they lack opportunities at home? Because their countries are run by and for a tiny wealthy elite and corporations, and because we wealthier Americans consume goods produced there without being conscious of the conditions under which they are produced and the harms their production cause.

Just as UP manipulated Welsh and Chinese miners in Rock Springs, so too large corporations are manipulating Latino and white people in the present day global economy. Just as my great-great-grandfather continued an evil practice in western Tennessee, so too do we by relying on goods produced elsewhere under unjust conditions.

If we really want to resolve the problem of illegal immigration, we will lean on the political and economic elite both here and there to distribute wealth, opportunities and risk more fairly. From that, better lives can be born.

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