Juan and his family are transforming a tumbledown farmhouse into a seasonal ‘cabin’ on six acres of pine and oak forest, and invited me to join them on the Fourth of July. Cabins are common among residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The drive from Minneapolis takes me through rolling, wooded hills, past lakes, farms with red barns, and quaint towns decked with American flags and hazy with backyard barbeque smoke. What is more ‘American’ than this?
On the drive, I had time to think about what this day means in light of Donald Trump’s diatribe against Mexicans, and the defense of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of ‘Southern heritage’. Both Trump and the flag defenders said they didn’t hate anyone. I don’t believe them.
The Confederate battle flag and the trumpeting from ‘The Donald’ negate our national credo affirming humankind’s inalienable rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.
Trump launched his bid for the GOP presidential nomination saying the U.S. was the dumping ground for the problems of everyone else, and then singled out Mexicans , saying they bring diseases, drugs, crime, terrorists, – they’re rapists. They don’t represent the ‘brightest and the best’ Mexico can send. Lies!
My friends came from Cuautla, Mexico, in the mid-1990’s after the sudden devaluation of the peso wiped out savings and threw back into poverty many about to join the middle class. They are among the brightest and best people I know in Minnesota. Juan is a construction supervisor, his wife is a bookkeeper; one daughter graduated from college and wants to be a doctor, the other is studying criminal justice to be a police officer. We belong the same church, and we speak English and Spanish equally. I’m considered ‘one of the family’ – a primo or cousin by adoption. I take Trump’s words as personally as if he smeared my daughters.
Trump represents a small but intense subset of rancid-minded Americans. After his blast, most of the other GOP Presidential wannabe’s said little or waited to criticize. What does the public think? A recent national poll shows three-fourths of U.S. citizens favor some form of legal residence or a pathway to citizenship. Trump doesn’t speak for them.
Let’s look at the facts . Mexico doesn’t ‘send’ anyone to the U.S.; my Mexican primos took great personal risks to pursue their vision of a better future, as did my Puritan ancestors and, probably, Trump’s, too.
Two-thirds of the Mexican immigrants (64%) arrived in the U.S. between 1995 and 2000, and a majority are relatives of U.S. citizens. They didn’t bring diseases – Mexico’s inoculation rate (99%) is higher than that of the U.S. (92%). Hispanics aren’t ‘taking over’ the country. Immigrants make up only 13% of the U.S. population, although Hispanics are the largest group. The net immigration rate has fallen to zero since 2010 with as many returning to Mexico as arrive.
Immigrants are an economic engine. They account for nearly 15% of the total U.S. economic output, and own 18% of all small businesses –a source of new jobs. As for crime, a study of violent crime among immigrants revealed homicide rates fell just as immigration rose. Cities with high Hispanic populations – New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and El Paso – saw sharp drops in violent crime. A closer look at Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago revealed that, despite greater poverty, Hispanics were 45% less likely than native-born Americans to commit a violent crime.
These facts are easy to obtain. Even an intellectually lazy person could learn this by spending 30 minutes on-line at the Cato Institute, Migration Policy Institute, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Pew Research Center, to name a few.
When I lived a block of Lake Street, Minneapolis, as a student in the 1970s, businesses after business folded up, and houses stood vacant or in decay. Then, Latino immigrants began arriving in the late 1980s. They opened new businesses, renovated houses, and resurrected commercial and residential life along two miles of Minneapolis. Only the brightest and best are capable of transforming a city. This is ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in action.
Letting Trump and the Confederate battle flag go unchallenged is dangerous. While we are guaranteed freedom of speech, it isn’t a license to lie, and lies must be challenged. We must act on our moral conscience when the truth is violated. If we don’t, someone will act on the lie, thinking it truth. The youth who shot nine people in Charleston intended to incite a race war because he believed African-Americans ‘were taking over.’ Trump’s lies about Mexican immigrants is a variation on the same theme. Hatred of the ‘other.’ It played out in Germany as a ‘Final Solution’. Unchallenged lies are a threat.
The Charleston killings shocked the conscience of even the most conservative white southerners. Social media postings of the killer with the Confederate flag exposed the banner for what it was and is – a symbol of struggle to preserve the institution of human slavery, an emblem of white resistance to racial equality, and hatred. It was never a benign symbol of ‘Southern heritage’ and to say otherwise is to deny the core truths in the Declaration of Independent – that all persons are equal. That flag has lasted as long as it has because people North and South share a willful amnesia about the true causes of secession and Civil War – human slavery.
The Fourth of July celebrates the Declaration of Independence, a supreme defiance of the idea that kings and nobles – rich and well-born – know best, and in its place, the Declaration proposes the radical, self-evident truth ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. This is an unqualified declaration because it says all are equal, not just some – ALL.
The battle flag has come down, the victims’ survivors offered forgiveness from their hearts but, what about ‘The Donald’? He wants attention – and is getting it from a narrow base of GOP activists. He says aloud what a class of fearful, white Americans – many of a certain age – who believe ‘THEY’ – non-whites – are taking over THEIR America. They ‘want their country back’. Trump was their voice in 2009 when they didn’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. – despite the public records. Trump is again their mouthpiece for a new, set of lies. Sadly, our human nature is afflicted with the capacity to believe prejudices in the face of truths to the contrary. What can we do about it?
Vigilance. We must be vigilant that the ideas and values expressed in the Declaration of Independence do not become dead words because we don’t act in conformance with their truths. We must take a hopeful view of the future, as our ancestors did. America’s greatness was built by people who looked ahead believing tomorrow could be better than today. Immigrants still do. What’s wrong with the rest of us? Have we forgotten what it means to be an American?
Juan greeted me from under a 200-year-old pine tree where he cooked pork or carnitas in a large kettle over an open fire. His brother, wife ,and nieces were there; and then more of the family arrived until we made an extended clan of siblings, parents, grandparents and a ‘primo.’ We ate carnitas with guacamole, tortillas, rice, and fruit. We spoke English, Spanish, and Spanglish. The kids played games. We are equal, whether we are U.S. citizens, ‘Green card’ holders, or have no papers at all. It doesn’t matter – we are equal. We are all Americans!