Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1623 - If we looked back a little, we would see our way forward much clearer

  I am not an immigrant. I am not a descendant of immigrants. My fore parents were not immigrants, but they arrived in this country from another continent. They did not come by choice. They came by force and violence. They came in chains, but they were not immigrants.

  Virtually every nationality came to this country as immigrants. Each was escaping something – starvation, religious persecution, incarceration, war, poverty, lack of opportunity, etc. Each was seeking something. My African ancestors did not come seeking anything. My Africans ancestors were not running from anything. They appreciated their life in the Mother Land. They did not want to leave. They came against their will to much worse and horrific situations.

  I escaped from Alabama when I was 18 years of age. I went to New York City. I was not an immigrant, but I felt like one. I was running from something when I left Alabama. I was running from terrible racial segregation and oppression. I was running from low wages and back-breaking work. I was running from a dearth of freedom and a lack of opportunity. I was running to freedom and opportunity. New York was a different place. I was in a different culture. I was looked down on by others who came before me. I started off working the lowest paying and least desirable jobs. I worked alongside immigrants on jobs no one else wanted.

  After law school, I spent nearly a year in Nigeria, West Africa. However, I was not an immigrant because I did not come to stay. I went with the intention of returning to the United States within a year. I was in a very different place and culture. I was not running from something. I was not running to something. I was a visitor. I am not an immigrant.

  Native Americans are not immigrants. They are not descendants of immigrants. Someone on their way to India mistakenly called them “Indians” and the name stuck. Native Americans were treated much worse than immigrants. Most of their homelands were taken. Most of their culture was crushed. Most of their lives were wiped out. It is estimated that 13 million Native Americans lived in their homeland that now makes up what we call the United States of America. When the displacement and the culture-smashing and the killing and the dying were over, there were less than two million Native Americans.

  The United States is now the richest and the most powerful country in the world. It was taken from Native Americans. There is plenty of room for additional people. There is room for more immigrants. But we are closing our doors. We are building walls. The Native Americans did not close their doors. They did not build walls. The British came not by invitation but as conquerors.

  The history of immigration is a powerful story of people seeking a better life. Our legal history is a terrible story of limiting those who are just seeking freedom and opportunity. Some sought and received. Then they and/or their descendants turned around and limited others from seeking the very same freedom and opportunity. One would think that they would gladly extend to others the same opportunities they had received. But lo and behold, that was not the better part of their human nature. So many were immigrants.

  The United States Congress started enacting immigration laws in 1790, only one year after this country became the United States of America. At first they did not limit people immigrating to the United States. They just prevented them from becoming citizens. Eventually they started denying immigrants the right to enter this country. Our law books are filled with laws restricting the same freedom and opportunities their fore parents had sought and achieved. So many wanted to be immigrants.

  It was 1870 before American laws allowed Africans to become immigrants and citizens. That was five years after the Civil War had ended. It was much longer before Native Americans could become citizens in a country where they were never immigrants. In fact, it may have been 1965 when Native Americans achieved the full rights of citizenship with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was the same act that provided African Americans the full rights of citizenship with the right to vote. All those treated as immigrants were not immigrants.

  It hurts me when I hear some African Americans say, “I’m tired of those Mexicans taking our jobs.” I know how easy it is to be against something. I know how hard it is to be for something. I am not hurt, but I am disturbed when some Whites make the same statements about immigrants. I know that 1.3 million Mexican Americans were deported or forced to leave this country in 1954. Many were citizens. They called it “Operation Wet Back.” I know that 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were placed in concentration camps. Some of those individuals were treated much worse than immigrants.

  Immigrants nearly always get the least desirable jobs. When I went north, I got the least desirable jobs. For example, take farm work right now. I don’t know any Whites or African Americans who want to work in the fields for someone else. Some years ago, I would plant huge gardens. I would tell persons that they could have all the vegetables they wanted. All they had to do was go into the fields and gather them. Fieldwork, even for ourselves, is not desirable. They did go, but they asked that I harvest the vegetables and bring them to them. Immigrants come in all shapes, colors, and circumstances.

  Immigrants are more than people coming to a country. Some of us are still treated like immigrants. Normally the new immigrants take work left by previous waves of immigrants. After hundreds of years, some of us are still the last hired and the first fired. Some of us still occupy the lowest rungs of the economic and social ladders. I am not an immigrant. We are not immigrants. But we know what it is like to be treated as immigrants.

Epilogue – This country is in a rage over immigration. We forget that those who came before most of us were immigrants. If we just looked back a little, we would see our way forward much clearer.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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