Everyone Else is They

The promise of America, as the latin motto goes and the new president (okay, president-elect) has been fond of quoting is “e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one.”  And yet we still struggle with acheiving this attitude that everyone belongs in the one; that except for the people who were native to this land when Europeans arrived, none of us have any real claim to it and if we are to continue to make a life here together, everybody must come to be included in the we of we the people, the one, the unum.

I think of Rudyard Kipling’s poem:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

We persist in dividing into us and them instead of we.  Today there is this gem in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about the state of Texas requiring anyone who is late in renewing a driver’s license by even one day to produce a birth certificate in order to renew (they’ll also take a passport). Ostensibly this is meant to catch people who are here in Texas illegally (I guess the Caddo, Apache, Tonkwa, Lipans, Coahuiltecans, and Comanche are waiting for all of us to be late in renewing our driver’s licenses).  Who’s it going to “get”? Grandma and Grandpa.

“Some older Texans are not going to have birth certificates,” Burnam said. “They were born in a wood-frame shack 80 years ago, or the courthouse doesn’t have the records anymore. Or they simply never had to prove it.”

The same rule brought a backlash from older Oklahomans last year after that state passed a draconian immigration law.

The denial that the law isn’t racist is funny, if it wasn’t funny.

“We’re not saying this is racist. We’re saying that the people who will be punished the most by this rule are native-born Texans.”

But he worries that minorities or people speaking other languages will be confronted more often for identification.

Um, ah, if minorities or people speaking other languages will be confronted more often because of something, then that’s a clue that something most likely has racist implications.

I read about this today, the morning after Tina came home from school with a story that one of her students will be returning to Mexico because although here with her father, the child’s mother and man’s wife was not granted permission to enter the country and dad just can’t go without his partner any longer and without help raising the girls any longer.   I was too sad and depressed to muster any outrage because, well, after growing up a Reagan Baby and living through the last eight years, I just don’t expect anything different from America.  I’m hopeful things will change.  Now, the child’s mom could be a convicted felon or a drug trafficker or a terrorist – there’s the possibility that there was a very good reason for saying no to the woman, but I’m going to admit to having grown thick cynical skin on this and wonder if she wasn’t just another middle aged mom from Mexico who happened to be, well, Mexican.

When your government lies to you about the reasons for starting wars, spies on its own citizens, dismisses department of justice employees for political reasons, engages in torture of it enemies and locks up people who even “look” like terrorists, one grows a thick skin on such matters.  Hope floats in the air, but it hasn’t landed anywhere with decision making power yet.

My favorite theologian Bruce Springsteen tells many parables of the Mexican immigrant.  The most powerful and understated is Matamoros Banks.  It’s sung in the voice of a Mexican would be illegal immigrant who never made it across the river.  It’s a “reverse” biography, the story begins from the point of view of the floating corpse in the river, as far as this man ever made it to the U.S. and tells the tale that led to that point. Bruce says this about the song:

Each year many die crossing the deserts, mountains, and rivers of our southern border in search of a better life. Here I follow the journey backwards, from the body at the river bottom, to the man walking across the desert towards the banks of the Rio Grande.

It’s a simple song, set to an acoustic guitar:

For two days the river keeps you down
Then you rise to the light without a sound
Past the playgrounds and empty switching yards
The turtles eat the skin from your eyes, so they lay open to the stars

Your clothes give way to the current and river stone
‘Till every trace of who you ever were is gone
And the things of the earth they make their claim
That the things of heaven may do the same
Goodbye, my darling, for your love I give God thanks,
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

Over rivers of stone and ancient ocean beds
I walk on sandals of twine and tire tread
My pockets full of dust, my mouth filled with cool stone
The pale moon opens the earth to its bones
I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks
The touch of your loving fingertips
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

Your sweet memory comes on the evenin’ wind
I sleep and dream of holding you in my arms again
The lights of Brownsville, across the river shine
A shout rings out and into the silty red river I dive
I long, my darling, for your kiss, for your sweet love I give God thanks
A touch of your loving fingertips
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros
Meet me on the Matamoros banks

I borrow here from my sermon The Parablist, about Bruce Springsteen, on his song The Line –

The story in the song “The Line”  is a parable about the conflict between two virtues, justice and loyalty, or duty and love.  The narrator of “The Line” is a recently discharged and widowed military vet named Carl who goes to work for the INS on the California Border Patrol.  There he meets a friend

Bobby Ramirez was a ten-year veteran

We became friends

his family was from Guanajuato

so the job it was different for him

He said’ “They risk death in the deserts and mountains”

pay all they got to the smugglers rings,

we send ’em home and they come right back again

Carl, hunger is a powerful thing.”

Bobby Ramirez and Carl dance and drink in Mexican bars with the same people they send back across the line. Carl meets a woman named Louisa and falls in love.   Then one night on patrol he sees her…

she climbed into my truck

she leaned towards me and we kissed

as we drove her brother’s shirt slipped open

and I saw the tape across his chest

Why so many stories of illegal immigrants? Perhaps because it is their story we don’t understand and thus we don’t understand why so many come and why we need to welcome more people with open arms and have less restrictive immigration policies.  In a time when the world economy and our own domestic economy is in upheaval this going to be harder to get people to accept.  There will be fewer jobs, there will be less to go around, but still there will be more here than anywhere else in the world.

Twenty years ago Lou Reed sang not about the Statue of Liberty, but the Statue of Bigotry in his song Dirty Blvd:

Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard

Now twenty years on I want that statue to be the statue of hope it once was, not a statue of false and fanatic patriotism, blindly following leaders a flag wrong or right, but a genuine beacon of hope for a better life to a world that needs somewhere to go, fulfilling the words justifiably once mocked:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

We can’t do this while indiscriminately sending home one parent and one partner and breaking up families due to fears of terrorism and puffed out proud chests of America first.  Unless you’ve got some pure native blood, none of belong here, really.  We are all the immigrant of some past time, tempest tossed to this place and this time, to make a better place and a better time within the time and place we’ve been given.

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