by Barry Edelson


The Great Migration

Refugee camp in the desert

A settled person scorns the migrant. The presence of the uprooted is, literally and figuratively, unsettling. From the distance of the evening news or the online photo, the refugee, tossed about in an unseaworthy craft or trodding through foreign mud, may be an object of pity. But it is one thing to imagine the misery of those displaced by war, poverty and famine, another to confront it on one's doorstep. It is distressing just to know about them, let alone to have them appear in one's midst, to watch them gather like locusts in the town center, in the familiar places one thinks of as one's own. Their peculiar clothes and manners and tongues are cause for alarm at best, disgust at worst, regardless of the compelling reasons why they have appeared from nowhere in your home town. The toddler's body that washes up on a Greek shore is quickly forgotten among the throngs of menacing young men who hover outside the bus station, or camp out on village greens and under highway overpasses. The threat of being displaced by newcomers overwhelms any innate sense of concern for the families, or the infirm, or the elderly.

Something there is that doesn't love a migrant.

We imagine this discomfort is aroused mainly by differences of race, ethnicity, language, custom and religion, and these are certainly aggravating factors. But even without such easy distinctions, the migrant is still an undesirable. French-speaking Africans, Christian Arabs and fair-skinned Afghans have been no more welcome on Europe's southern shores than their less intelligible or adaptable compatriots. The so-called Okies on their way to California in the 1930s, refugees from the Dust Bowl, were terrorized and beaten and sometimes killed, even though they were ethnically indistinguishable from the white Protestants who hounded them from town to town. At a time when men would deign to do any kind of work for a crust of bread, being idle was made into a criminal offense, solely to get rid of outsiders.

The tramp is an object of contempt, barely counted as human. In the eyes of those who remain comfortably in one place, being stateless and homeless transforms the migrant into a vagrant. Respectable people don't wander about in a strange country; decent folk don't show up uninvited in someone else's community. Their plight cannot just be a matter of simple misfortune, which would demand empathy and compassion. These people must have done something to deserve being unwanted. Why else would we feel such antipathy towards them? We're not animals, after all. We read the Bible.

The appearance of the migrant conveniently fulfills a fundamental need to identify and brand the "other". It is an instinct so deeply rooted that we do not recognize it in ourselves. The migrant does us the favor of providing an outlet for our primordial suspicion of the tribe next door. We can tell ourselves that there is a reason for our troubles after all: If only we could get rid of those people, all of those Mexicans and Central Americans and Muslims, then all would be well (again). Those who consider themselves self-satisfyingly humane don't necessarily wish the migrants harm, but just want them to be elsewhere, preferably to return to their own countries, and not have to bother their heads about the harm that may come to them once they are out of sight.

Migrants are therefore often left to the mercies of the most indifferent and depraved among us, who do not care if the outsiders live or die. Those who are fleeing pay unknown smugglers unimaginable sums to take them across borders. If they are caught, they are often detained by their thousands in a limbo worthy of Kafka. Because we do not see or hear them, their suffering does not exist. Others are deported to their places of origin, regardless of the dangers to which they will be subjected upon their return, the very same dangers that prompted them to risk their lives and turn their backs upon their homelands in the first place. Which are the luckier ones, then: those left to languish in detention for months or years, their fate ultimately in the hands of people who know or care little about their suffering, or those sent back to the very same hell from which they escaped at such great cost?


Last One In, Lock the Door

For most of American history, settling in this country was a matter of disembarking from a ship and walking in. There was no national, formalized immigration process to speak of until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law as clear in its racist intentions as its name suggests. (It is worth a visit to the excellent Museum of Chinese in America, in New York, to learn about the act's predictably awful effects, among other aspects of America's treatment of foreign nationals.) Subsequent laws passed in the 1890s to bar various other undesirables, such as those deemed morally or constitutionally unfit to live amongst America's spotless citizenry, did little to stem the flow. If that was in fact their intention, they failed miserably. Ellis Island opened in 1892, followed by similar sites near other major ports of entry, and it was through these gates in the ensuing decades that the ancestors of a great preponderance of our current population entered this country. Tens of millions arrived this way. More than 14.5 million came between 1900 and 1920 alone.

Once a migrant landed with two feet on these shores, the odds were in favor of remaining permanently. There were no visas required in advance of arrival, nothing necessary except for the determination to get here and the money to pay the fare. A passport wasn't even required until 1918. Tough luck for those with a bad cough or a whiff of moral turpitude, who could be turned around and sent home. Nearly everyone else got to stay. So much for the myth that "our" ancestors came "legally", unlike the millions of "illegals" in the country today who sneaked in when we weren't looking. Without a legal bar to entry for most migrants, the law was simply a non-issue.

Migrants in a boat
Would you do this if you weren't desperate?
Migrants on foot
Or this?
Migrant children sleeping out of doors
Or this?

Quotas were first introduced with the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, and for reasons we can well imagine. "Regular" Americans had had enough of those swarthy Southern European Catholics and pasty Eastern European Slavs and Jews. Of course, people kept coming anyway, but the imposition of quotas not only guaranteed continued acrimony between immigrants and the native born, it naturally induced many people to circumvent the law in any way they could. Like all efforts to prohibit by law behavior that is compelled by nature (such as the determination to rise out of abject poverty, to be able to express one's view, and not to be hunted like an animal), the main effect of the new restrictions was to drive immigration underground. And just like the prohibition against alcohol (which went into effect during the same time period, in 1920), it had the lasting and deleterious effect of empowering organized crime. To this day, the desperation of millions of would-be migrants yields enormous profit to human traffickers, who oversee a lawless and violent underworld in which vulnerable people are subject to unspeakable mistreatment, and often death.

America has passed other immigration laws over the course of the last 100 years, but the issue remains a perpetual source of disagreement and discomfort. It goes without saying that, apart from American Indians, there isn't a single resident of this country, citizen or otherwise, whose forebears didn't come from somewhere else. The overwhelming majority arrived in just the last century or two. And yet, we have deep disagreements about whether and how many newcomers we should allow, and under what circumstances. The decades-long failure of Congress to pass an immigration reform bill demonstrates that we are not merely divided, but conflicted within ourselves. Immigration isn't just a matter of who we let in, but who we imagine ourselves to be. The phrase "a nation of immigrants" apparently means little to many who have been settled here for generations.

Rather than providing an opening to those who would do us harm, as many on the anti-immigrant end of the spectrum seem to believe, perhaps immigration is instead an essential outlet for the pressures that build up in benighted countries that might otherwise be our enemies. (We could call them "shithole" countries, to coin a phrase.) Would we be better off if the Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans who have swarmed into Western Europe in the last couple of years had remained in their home countries, to be embittered by endless war and penury, their sons and daughters ready fodder for jihadist recruiters? Is it not preferable to have them here, where they can be educated and assimilated into seeing the world in ways that are less threatening to civilization? For every assassin who draws the knife against us, how many more have been rescued from terrorist indoctrination by being welcomed into our home? Is the world a better place with more teeming slums — more Sowetos, more favelas, more Jakartas? If we cannot provide every poor person on Earth a home in the West, we can help a great many more than we do, and thereby offer hope of a better life to millions of others.

When handled properly, letting more people into this country, and to other prosperous and democratic countries, is an act of self-preservation, not self-destruction. Mass immigration need not be a suicide pact. German leaders did themselves no favor in 2016 when a million people were allowed entry with little in the way of processing. Perhaps Angela Merkel felt that Germany, given its 20th-century history, had no right to deny asylum to anyone. Hers was either an undeniably moral stance, the political consequences be damned, or it was an economically shrewd and cynical one, given the declining birth rates across Europe. Would that a single one of our politicians had such moral courage in the face of human calamity. But if decency is not a sufficient motivation (as it seldom is in politics) to allow entry to the huddled masses of other nations, then the economic arguments should be self-evident.

What would the economic condition of the United States be today without immigration? Never mind the Spanish-speaking migrants who have come in recent decades, and who do the menial jobs that other Americans will no longer stoop to do. Suppose the early American union had decided to close itself to outsiders from the very beginning, and had the means to restrict its population to just original, mostly British settlers. Imagine that the waves of humanity that began with the Irish, Germans and Scandinavians in the middle of the 19th century just never arrived at all. Imagine if all of the tens of millions who crossed the oceans decade after decade in steerage from Europe, Asia and the Americas had stayed where they were, or went somewhere else. What would that America be today? A tiny, inconsequential statelet, a minuscule people presiding over a vast emptiness, an unrealized dream, a warmer Canada. Any contention that the country would have been better off because it would have remained overwhelmingly white, as some in the current "debate" over immigration clearly desire, is highly questionable. Without a continued, vast infusion of European migrants of all shades and creeds, white Americans would have almost certainly been outnumbered in time by native peoples and black slaves, freed or otherwise. Ironically, this would most likely have occurred far earlier in "our" history than the demographic shift that we are experiencing today. Beginning with the English Puritans and Dutch colonists in the 17th century, there would literally be no United States of America at all without immigration.


The Struggle Against Statistics

The 65 million displaced persons in the world right now constitute a population comparable to that of Britain, France or Italy. Ai Weiwei's remarkable documentary Human Flow shapes portraits of individual migrants in nearly two dozen countries, and does its best to prevent these wretched people from being reduced to mere statistics. The film is beautiful and riveting and hard to watch. Even the most committed activist cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the circumstances; it is a problem that is almost literally too great to solve. It is not that there aren't people and organizations who care, or even governments that are willing to lend logistical support on a large scale. But the political and military realities that have driven millions to take the desperate act of leaving home, many with children in their arms, without any guarantee of landing in a safe place, are enduring and intractable. Except by force of arms, which only creates more migrants, most of the world's numerous conflicts will not reach definitive conclusions any time soon, if ever. Even if these terrible ordeals could be ended, the additional and growing stresses of climate change guarantee that there will be no end to the flow in the next several lifetimes. The refugee camps that dot the globe will be filled for a very long time and will only grow in number. The statistics are nonetheless shocking: the average time a refugee remains a refugee, according to the film, is 26 years.

With such a large group of stateless people, it is not surprising that a body of literature is emerging from this multinational diaspora. Consider Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a slightly surreal fantasy about how lovers in a war-torn country escape from the horror around them. Or The Home That Was Our Country by Alia Malek, a memoir of a Syrian family shattered and scattered by years of dictatorship and civil war. These books and many others put paid to the idea that such people will be able to go home again any time soon. They wish they could rebuild their lives in their homelands far more ardently than their unsympathetic hosts in Western countries want them to leave. The will is strong, but in most cases the means do not exist.

The migrant is a victim, and victims must be blamed. Through eons of history, humanity is well practiced in this particular cruelty. How else do we explain our reluctance to let more migrants in? How else do we justify denying entry even to those who are refugees as a direct result of American military action? It defies logic to believe that every would-be immigrant is a terrorist. Tortured ex-prisoners? Children, too? In any event, there is incontrovertible evidence that immigrants are less likely to be criminals or terrorists than native-born Americans. We have the most stringent screening system of any country on the planet, and still it isn't good enough for some immigration hard-liners. Those who bristle at being called racists because they favor stricter immigration laws have a special obligation to explain themselves. Explain how the country has suffered as a result of immigration over the last two centuries. Explain how your own family arrived here. And explain what exactly is so special about the divine human specimens who happen to be here already.


And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother's restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
Who says, "Hard times?
I'm used to them
The speeding planet burns
I'm used to that
My life's so common it disappears"
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears

Paul Simon, "The Cool, Cool River"



February 24, 2018


Go to top of page

Return to home pageSend an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.