Walls, Deportation, and Trump’s ‘Final Solution’

Immigrants aren’t ‘real Americans’, are they? I mean, if we let them stay, they’ll change the character of the country. It won’t be America anymore, will it?

That’s the visceral feeling of many who rally to Donald Trump, and nativist organizations, like NumbersUSA, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and others. Many who affiliate with white nationalist groups see immigrants as an existential threat. Do you?

President Obama and the Republican Congress agree the United States has a dysfunctional immigration system. Unfortunately, they don’t agree on the parts that are broken or the fixes it needs. That leaves a policy vacuum. Nature and politics abhor vacuums and Trump is ready to fill it with a simple, comprehensive ‘final solution’. So he says.

If elected, Trump says he’ll keep immigrant families together and then deport 11 million of them – including their U.S. citizen children. He would build a wall along 1,900 miles of the border and force Mexico to pay for it. In addition, he would rewrite the long-established meaning of the 14th Amendment! Should we take Trump’s ideas seriously?

Yes! And here’s why. What he proposes has happened many times in U.S. history at the hands of a xenophobic minority and a passive majority. To understand what is going on, it’s important to step away from the rabid carnival barker on television and consider the history of forced removals in American history. It’s an ugly picture, largely ignored in our public education, and exposes the racist skeletons in our national closet.

From time to time, especially during economic downturns, U.S. policies have taken two approaches to non-whites and immigrants – exclude them or remove them.

Excluding immigrants begins with The Naturalization Act of 1790 that prohibited the naturalization of non-whites. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution effectively overturned it. After intense lobbying from Californians, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese. Chinese laborers arrived to work in the 1850s gold rush, and later on the railroads. When economic times got tough, Californians claimed the Chinese took jobs that white men could hold. The Act remained in place until 1943.

The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas limiting annual immigration from each nation to 2 percent of immigrants from that country resident in the U.S. in 1890. During the recession following WWI, some Americans agitated to stop immigration of southern and eastern Europeans (Italians, Poles, Jews,) because they competed for jobs. The Act banned immigration of Asians and Arabs. The eugenics movement was at its peak and pushed hard to ban those they considered ‘racially inferior’. This pseudoscience regarded poverty as a sign of genetic inferiority, promoted forced sterilization of the mentally ill, and pushed laws prohibiting interracial marriage in order to improve the original ‘American stock’. The Immigration Act of 1924 remained in force until 1965.

Those whom Americans didn’t want, they proposed ‘repatriating’ or deporting to another country. In 1821, the American Colonization Society, an organization founded by Northern abolitionists and some Southerners, who believed free blacks wouldn’t fit into a white society. They set up a colony in West Africa that became Liberia but relatively few slaves were freed when Whitney’s cotton gin spurred cotton production and increased the need for slaves.

Whites wanted Native Americans land and, beginning in 1830, the government forcibly removed the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations from the southeastern states (to expand cotton and slavery), and relocated them in what became Oklahoma. Among them were many European Americans, black freedmen, and slaves. Thousands died on the ‘Trail of Tears’ west from exposure, disease, and starvation, including more than 2,000 of the 16,000 Cherokee. After that, the U.S. used treaties, military and economic force to ‘relocate’ indigenous nations on ‘reservations’ of lands deemed worthless to whites, and even these were whittled away. Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924!

After the U.S.-Mexican War, Mexico ceded vast territories to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexicans residents became citizens of the United States, but on paper only. Once socially and economically prominent Mexicans were pushed aside, abused, and defrauded by white settlers rushing into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Soon, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws applied to Mexicans as well as blacks in Texas and elsewhere.

Mexican immigration wasn’t formally restricted and, during the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920, millions of Mexicans fled to safety in the United States, settled in Los Angeles and other cities, found work, created communities, and started families.

As the U.S. slipped into economic depression, and unemployment approached 25 percent, white Americans demanded the removal of Mexicans to free jobs for white Americans and reduce relief roles. From 1930 to 1936, U.S., state, and county governments in California, Texas, and Colorado, rounded up and deported to Mexico, without due process, as many as two million people, including an estimated million U.S. citizen spouses and children of Mexican immigrants. Esteban Torres was a three-year-old boy when he father was ‘repatriated’ in the 1930s. He never saw his father gain, but Esteban gained his citizenship and served in Congress from 1983-1999.

In 1942, with the U.S. at war in Europe and Asia, the U.S. and Mexican governments established a formal guest worker program – braceros – in lieu of undocumented immigration to work on farms and railroads in place of the men in the armed services. The program continued until 1965. Mexican farm workers could earn more in the U.S. than working in Mexico; American farmers wanted low-wage workers and brought them in illegally rather than deal with the rules of the guest worker program. Mexico farm owners and businessmen protested the loss of workers to the U.S. and, beginning in 1954, the two countries launched ‘Operation Wetback’ to capture and deport over a million undocumented Mexicans. The tide of Mexican immigration has ebbed and flowed depending on the economy.

Are immigrants just one more commodity in a throw-away economy?

Anti-immigrant xenophobia is surprisingly consistent across cultures and centuries. Its proponents see immigrants as different, of less value as humans, less civilized, or capable of becoming ‘true Americans’. In words both coarse and polite, they call immigrants economic parasites, bottom feeders, and the cause diseases and crime that will drag down the nation.

These sentiments greeted the Irish, who arrived in the U.S. during the 1840s, and the Slavs and Italians in the early 1900s. Nazis used similar arguments against the Jews, the Hungarians make similar claims for not admitting Syrians trying to reach Germany today. The ignorance behind eugenics still casts an ugly shadow.

Xenophobes seem always in search of a ‘final solution’. The means have varied over the years – forcing indigenous nations onto reservations, passing laws to exclude the Chinese, ‘repatriating’ Mexicans, incarcerating U.S. born Japanese, and sending Jews to gas chambers.

As for walls, they haven’t worked throughout history. Perhaps there is something comfortable in the idea of wall, but it is false security. The Chinese built its Great Wall to block nomadic invaders – it didn’t work. The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Scots – it didn’t work. The Berlin Wall fell in our lifetime. People find a way over, under, or around.

What are the facts? Immigrants have always been at the core of American history and economic growth. Deporting all of them would remove six percent of the U.S. workforce, reduce GDP by six percent, and cost $400-600 billion. Given low U.S. birthrates and an aging population, immigration is essential and can raise GDP by one percent and reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion in 20 years. Unauthorized immigrants make up half of California’s farm workers. Americans would feel the effect immediately in a scarcity of fruits and vegetables.

Are immigrants a drag on the economy? No! The economic drag comes from a person who makes campaign contributions to secure business favors from government officials, bends the bankruptcy laws to advantage and sticks someone else with the bills, and asks for tax abatements and incentives instead of putting his own assets at risk.

Can repatriation happen again? Yes! If we’re silent in the face of intolerance.

Polls consistently show a strong majority of Americans favors giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. But a poll response isn’t a commitment; it isn’t the same as stepping up to put pressure on lawmakers and demand a reform of immigration laws.

A majority of Americans isn’t opposed to granting immigrants a path to citizenship but it’s not their priority, either. At most, it’s passive support that can melt quickly unless we act. If you believe immigrants are vital to our economy, a dynamic in our way of life, and support the American credo on the Statue of Liberty, then demand immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Your ancestors were once immigrants. Don’t let your silence support xenophobia. Honor your heritage. Speak out.



“Ya basta!” – Celebrating an unfinished revolution

OAXACA, Mexico

Understanding social realities is an important part of learning Spanish and Mexican culture.  Unlike a packaged tour, immersion means you take what comes, the good, the bad, and reality  Today is the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.  Although it began as a Revolution, it soon descended into civil war lasting nearly ten years.  Its grim tally of untold deaths is often overlooked in favor of colorful characters like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  Let’s start the day’s meditaton with the colorful leaders and look at the realities later.

That was then … or was it?

My friend Don Hilario, a former mariachi, took me to several places in the life of an iconic Revolucionario: Emiliano Zapata, the handsome general with a thick moustache, large sombrero, his chest crossed by bandeliers of bullets.  Don Hilario’s adult children and grandchildren – my friends – live in Minnesota.  He lives in Cuautla, Morelos, in a small house built against the stone and concrete wall of the ex-Hacienda Coahuixtla.

On my first visit in 2010, he put on his hat, picked up his cane, and led me into the ex-Hacienda.  It is a ruin, an empty shell of crumbling, stone buildings were landless peasants processed cane into sugar and died in dire poverty.  The Revolution smashed the hacienda system, including this one.  As we stood on a knoll, he pointed across the valley and said: “Over there is Zapata’s house.  Do you want to see it?”  Of course I did!

It’s the centerpiece at the Zapata Museum in the town of Anenecuilco (which he made me practice pronouncing).  The remnants of its adobe walls are protected from the weather by a huge nylon cover.  The immense mural presents the life of Emiliano Zapata in dramatic scenes and vivid color.  Zapta is the Revolution’s romantic icon.

When I visited him again in 2012, Don Hilario drove me to his home town, Quilamula, a pueblo in southwestern Morelos.  On the way, we stopped at ex-Hacienda Chinameca where a young teamster named Emiliano Zapata hauled the bricks to construct the hacienda.   In 1919, near the end of the civil war, Zapata’s rivals assassinated him there.   Quilamula is a poor town, and it was easy to imagine that many towns like it offered men as “guerreros” who followed Zapata for “Tierra y libertad,” land and liberty.

That night, in my guest room on the second level of Don Hilario’s small house, I stood on the balcony under a full moon.  Looking over the tops of the pomelo trees at moonlight and shadow, I was deeply aware I was as close as I could come to the Revolution of 1910.

This is now … or is it still 1910?

This morning I paused by the plaza of a kindergarten and peered through the wrought iron gate at the parents and children celebrating the Revolution.  Little boys wore small serapes, conical sombreros, and carried toy rifles; the girls wore long skirts with ribbons in their braids.  A fiesta for los “ninos.”

But an adult hung on the gate a framed, hand-lettered sign listing the causes of the Revolution:

  • Unequal distribution of wealth;
  • Exploitation of workers;
  • Political and adminstrative corruption;
  • Negation of democratic government.

Many Mexicans today wonder what has changed.  Is this 1910 over again?

Since the Spanish conquista, resources and wealth in Mexico have been largely in the hands of a small circle of influentials: Spaniards, then the criollos who succeeded them, and then the one-party government of the PRI (Partido Revolutionario Institutional) that ran Mexico from 1929 until 2000.

Expropriation of ancestral lands provided the spark for Zapata’s bottom-up revolt in the State of Morelos.  But Zapta’s was only one of several revolutions that erupted in different places in opposition to the 30-year presidency of  Porfirio Diaz.  Briefly united, the revolutionaries forced Diaz into exile.  After that, the country plunged into a decade of brutal conflict as generals and chiefs allied and betrayed each other in pursuit of conflicting agendas for the future of Mexico.

Unfortunately, ten years of civil war didn’t resolve these contradictions and establish a common vision that all Mexicans could embrace.  Nor did it create a democracy to off-set if not end the pre-Revolution system of oligarcy that had marginalized the campesinos and indigenous.  Only the names of the oligarchs changed.  The tendency toward oligarchy re-emerged within the state managed-economy run by the PRI.  Before its 71 year domination ended, the PRI co-opted and absorbed civic organizations, labor unions, trade associations, and cooperatives that might otherwise act as independent, countervailing forces.

Ayotzinapa – a flash back

The September 26, 2014, massacre of 43 student teachers at the hands of officials in Iguala, Guerrero, shocked a country already numbed by tens of thousands of deaths in a decade of the narco-violence.  Murders in Iguala resurrected memories of 1968 when he government used the Army to crush a student protest at the Autonomous University in Mexico City.  Like Kent State in 1970, the massacre at Tlatelolco left deep wounds.

The mayor of Iguala ordered the arrests of students because he feared they would disrupt an event held by his wife.  After the arrests, the police turned the students over to Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang, that killed them and burned their bodies.  Iguala exposed and confirmed the collaboration between drug cartels and local government.   Although the mayor of Iguala is in jail, and the Governor of Guerrero has resigned, the search for bodies goes on, and people wonder what other officials are controled by drug cartels.

Public anger is palpable, as is the disgust over corruption.  Daily press accounts reveal conflicts of interest and corruption among governors and other officials in cities and states throughout the country.  The President’s luxurious new home for his wife, however it is finally paid for, is more gas on the fire for citizens who don’t live in luxury.

Discontent and anger are evident in every place I’ve traveled -Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Tlaxiaco, and other pueblos.  Oaxaca’s Zocalo is a protesters’ camp of banners, tents and tarps.  Protesters march in Puebla and Mexico.  Banners hang in front of municipal halls and government buildings; graffiti and posters avow solidarity with the 43.  Youths slow traffic at toll booths outside Oaxaca to give travelers information and seek donations for families of the 43 dead students.

“Ya basta!” Enough already, is the prevailing mood.  Protesters are calling on the President to step down.

As I write this, officials in Mexico City have canceled the traditional celebrations in the Zocalo because of massive protests that are occuring.  Police and marchers are clashing near the International Airport.  In Puebla, students are marching in solidarity with the 43 murdered students.  Protests are occuring elsewhere.

After you make friends in Mexico, it becomes increasingly difficult to shrug your shoulders and feel nothing for the social and political forces affecting them.  Friendships can make these events personal.  What affects my friends, affects me, even if I can’t do anything about it.  For my many friends in Mexico, I hope for the best – whatever that may be.   

After a decade of narco-violence and political corruption, will the Mexican people rise up in revolt?  No one can say for certain.  The Revolution remains unfinished, its promises unfulfilled.  The grievances of 1910 are with us yet.  Are there grievances enough to spark a national uprising?  No one knows for certain, but there is something in the wind.  And if there is an uprising, will it have a unifying vision for Mexico?  No one knows.

Like the volcano Popocatepetl, the body politic has errupted periodically since 1910, the outrage arising over one greivance or another, and then subsiding.  But like El Popo, the causes of unrest remain and the social magma is moving once more beneath the surface.  The phrase: “Ya basta!” has real force.  Mexico, like El Popo, is never dormant and the risk of eruption remains.  “Ya basta!”