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Pre-2008 Posts

Immigrant Lament

Well it's by the hush, me boys, and sure that's to hold your noise
And listen to poor Paddy's sad narration
I was by hunger stressed, and in poverty distressed
So I took a thought I'd leave the Irish nation

Well I sold me ass and cow, my little pigs and sow
My little plot of land I soon did part with
And me sweetheart Bid McGee, I'm afraid I'll never see
For I left her there that morning broken-hearted

Here's you boys, now take my advice
To America I'll have ye's not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin' cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

Well meself and a hundred more, to America sailed o'er
Our fortunes to be making we were thinkin'
When we got to Yankee land, they put guns into our hands
"Paddy, you must go and fight for Lincoln"

Here's you boys, now take my advice
To America I'll have ye's not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin' cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

General Meagher to us he said, if you get shot or lose your head
Every murdered soul of youse will get a pension
Well in the war I lost me leg, they gave me a wooden peg
And by soul it is the truth to you I mention

Here's you boys, now take my advice
To America I'll have ye's not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin' cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

Well I think meself in luck, if I get fed on Indianbuck
And old Ireland is the country I delight in
To the devil, I would say, it's curse Americay
For the truth I've had enough of your hard fightin

Here's you boys, now take my advice
To America I'll have ye's not be going
There is nothing here but war, where the murderin' cannons roar
And I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin
I wish I was at home
I wish I was at home
I wish I was at home
I wish I was at home in dear old Dublin

–Sinead O'Connor, Paddy's Lament

Riding the bus home from the April 10 immigration protests, I spent time talking with other protesters who were riding. It was sad to me and touching– many of the marchers seemed scared of those of us who, it was obvious, were commuters who ride the bus to Seattle and back to work everyday. It was entirely understandable that they would be; many regular commuters were angry over the disruption of bus schedules and being unable to get home after work as usual. I am not unsympathetic to that aggravation– I experience it every time there is a Seattle Mariners game in the afternoon that ends at rush hour, and that happens throughout the summer! When it does, I know that I am going to have to add an hour to my commute, minimum, and I am never pleased about that. But I didn't feel that way on April 10; I was part of the disruption myself! In any event, I made it my business to smile and greet those I knew, for whatever reason, were marchers so they knew I wasn't angry.

I was struck by some things. So many of the immigrants I saw, including those I spoke with on the bus, were clearly poor people. It was obvious in the clothes they wore, in their need for dental care, evidenced by teeth missing (I saw so much of this), in the fact that they rode the buses to the march and in some cases had to scrape together the $3.00 bus fare. The women I spoke with were bilingual, speaking in English with me, in Spanish with one another, and their children were bilingual as well. They wanted to talk about one thing, specifically: they felt that they were being made to be the stand-in for terrorists because they were the ones who were available, easily targeted. "We're not terrorists, you know? We are working people." One marcher, Erika Vacquez, a tortilla factory worker quoted in a local paper, said, "I never knew there were this many of us here. We don't see each other. We go to work and go home." I think this is exactly right.

I grew up in the '50s and '60s working each summer in the local raspberry, strawberry and blueberry fields to earn money for school clothes. I didn't have to work; my parents and my friends' parents required that we work in the summer to earn money for school clothes, to learn a good work ethic, to be out of their hair when school was out. In those days, you had to be 11 years old to pick berries, and so, 11 was my first berry-picking year. It was hard, hard work; the bus would come around and pick us up six days a week at 6 or 7 a.m. each day. We would pick berries all day with half an hour to eat our lunches. Outhouses were provided for workers. Sometimes the field bosses were cruel. We were paid by the pound or the crate, depending on the berry. When your crate was full or your bucket was full, you'd bring it in for weighing. If you had too many green berries or rotten berries, you'd get docked. If you didn't pick "clean," meaning you left too many berries in the row, you'd not only get docked, you'd have to re-pick that row. The field bosses would punch the card you wore around your neck, and at the end of the season, you were paid in cash based on the number of cards which were completely punched. During the peak of the season, you could fill cards quickly; the rest of the season, sometimes you could pick all day and barely fill a crate or a bucket. The most I ever earned for a summer's work was $80.00.

There were always two distinct categories of workers: white kids on summer vacation and Mexican families, men, women and children. They often lived in shacks or trailers provided for them by the farmers, sometimes large families in tiny shacks. I never understood this growing up: why were these people, including adult men and women and tiny children, making their living picking berries? I didn't see any white adults who made their living this way, just us kids earning money for school clothes. Why did they live in these shacks? I knew they followed the harvest, picking berries in Western Washington in the early summer, apples, pears, cherries, hops in Eastern Washington later in the summer. I wondered what kind of life that was for them, moving all of the time, living in shacks, and especially, how they managed to live on what I knew to be the meager amounts to be earned picking fruit. For me it was just a few weeks of summer work spent with my friends and then I could go shopping. I wondered if there was some sort of agreement between our government and the Mexican government or something like that; maybe they came to the U.S. for brief periods and then returned to Mexico where they had their own houses and more of the comforts of life I was used to. Interestingly, I never talked about this with anyone until I was much older and more knowledgeable about politics and power and the way power works to make some people comfortable at others' expense. This was just the way it was, I thought; it was the way it had always been. I thought that everybody must know something about it that I didn't know, but it must be right, if everybody accepted it. What I always knew, because I saw it up close and personal all of my growing-up years, was how hard immigrants worked, how little they were paid, how difficult their lives were.

One thing that deeply troubles me about the Republican interest in making immigrants felons (although that plan has foundered and failed) is the way it hearkens to sad events in the not-so-distant past, events which in some cases, the U.S. has apologized for publicly, and not long ago, either, even made reparations for. I am thinking, for example, of the way the Japanese in the Pacific Northwest were rounded up during World War II and interred in concentration camps in Puyallup, not far from where I was born or from where I live now for that matter, in the same small farm town where I spent my summers picking berries. In some cases, interred families included men who had, themselves, served in the military. In most cases, these were hard-working people whose businesses were simply closed down and taken by government officials when they were interred. In all cases, these were people who were easy to identify by their brown skin, black hair, almond-shaped eyes. They became the scapegoats, the easy-to-target people we could round up, put away, control, during a time when we were at war with people who happened to look like them. The plan to make immigrants felons is redolent of these sad times to me. The people we are targeting, want to keep out, want to send home, are brown people, people who do not look so different from those accused of terrorism, people who are not white. The people we are targeting are, in most cases, hardworking, law-abiding people, as Japanese Americans were during World War II.

As a practical matter, I don't think our borders can be closed to immigrants. And, I think we are a nation of immigrants, we are all immigrants; we all came from somewhere besides the United States unless we are Native American. I can't, in good conscience communicate the rough equivalent of, "I've got mine and there isn't enough now for you." Then, my love for the people of women trumps any other concern I might have about immigration. I want them to have opportunities. I want girls and women to have access to safe and reliable birth control and abortion. In some South American countries, abortion is a felony and birth control is difficult-to-impossible to obtain. I want them to receive educations, to have options they might not otherwise have.

But it's ironic; I find myself longing to return to Norway, to Finland, the original homes of my people, my mother, grandmothers, aunts. While I want good things for people who come to this country, I am so aware of our problems and difficulties and that immigrants will not escape them, any more than any of us has been able to. They have come to this country, will come here, to labor in white men's harvest fields. They will come, if they are girls and women, to be objectified and exploited and treated like sex objects and worse. They will come here, if they are boys, to be cannon fodder, to be drafted the way poor boys from poor families are always drafted, because that's the only work or opportunity there is. They will be subjected to the dehumanization and numbing of the senses which is part and parcel of serving in the military. They might be injured or die in war. If that happens, or if it doesn't happen, the U.S. government might fail to take care of them or to keep its promises to them or their survivors or families.

I can't get behind any effort to round up the "foreigners" and send them home. It's striking to me; it was Americans most everyone understood to be ugly Americans, racist Americans, who used to say, "Send them back to (wherever)." Now the Republican administration is saying it. Bush is saying it. And many people agree with them. But I think we're all foreigners unless we are Native. I can't get behind any stereotyping of immigrants that is negative; my experience is they are hardworking, decent people looking for a better life, people like me, like most of the American citizens I know. At the same time, I can't deceive myself about our problems as a nation, about what immigrants find when at last they arrive here. I wonder how many, like me, will want eventually to return to their native lands. I wonder how many will regret having come here. I wish more Americans would think deeply about what immigrants really are coming to when they come here, about the work that they do, about the way they serve all of us, invisible, unnoticed.




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