The horror stories of concentration camps (not death camps, but bad enough) on the southern border are in the news every day. In the middle of all that, let’s remember that June was Immigrant Heritage Month. It’s fitting that we honor immigrants this way. Nobody can truly claim to be a “native American,” except for, of course, the Indians, which is why they are the only ones who can claim that title.
Ironically, the Native Americans on their reservations seem to be having a permanent “immigrant” experience. Many of the First Nations people just can’t climb up from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. We are the land of opportunity, a country founded by immigrants who have made prosperity possible.
All of us are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, since the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., Santa Fe, Jamestown, Plymouth Rock and myriad other places. The English Americans, the dominant group in the U.S., are in the same category as the rest of us. They had to come across the ocean in boats just like everybody else, even if some of them feel that because their language and culture are dominant that somehow they are entitled to special privileges. Many of these people don’t like it, but we are still receiving immigrants because that’s what America is all about. There’s plenty of room here and work to be done to make America great.
But it’s hard to become an American these days. The visa process can take as long as 10 years and cost upwards of $10,000 per person. That’s just to establish residency. I talk to Latin American immigrants who say that they can’t afford the cost. So they stay here illegally. Regardless, they are Americans now because they have been here so long, have families here, have put down roots, own homes and businesses, pay taxes, contribute to the economy, and their children speak nothing but English and are as American as apple pie. You can’t just say “get out!” to people like these.
I once met a retailer who told me that every morning for the last 20 years his illegal immigrant Mexican manager has opened the store, run the whole operation, and has never missed a single day. That business owner will never turn his manager over to ICE. One time I was at the supermarket and talked to the janitor who was on his second eight-hour shift, after his first eight-hour shift. He would go home, sleep four hours, get up and go to his landscaping job. You can’t get native-born Americans to work like that.
The Army and the Marine Corps are full of immigrants because they are egalitarian institutions. Funny how immigrants want to fight for a country that often treats them like aliens. Not funny how they bleed as red as any red-blooded American. In my infantry company in Vietnam, Andrade was from Colombia. He tripped a booby-trapped grenade and got to go home early, but not to Colombia. Hernandez, from Mexico, drowned crossing one of those wide canals that laced the countryside east of Saigon. Alvarez, the Puerto Rican, but still an immigrant in spite of the fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, was eviscerated by a chunk of shrapnel. Meyer, from East Germany, was glad to have sneaked across the Berlin Wall, but he ended up fighting Communists in the Nam. In 1962, Guy, the Frenchman, had fought in the bloody Algerian war of national liberation, left France in disgust, immigrated to the U.S., and behold, was drafted into the U.S. Army, sent to fight in the Vietnamese war of national liberation. It drove him crazy, but he was a good man.
It’s an old story, the story of how America is constantly reinventing herself, forging a new people from older stock, constantly drawing inspiration from the blood, sweat, tears, and, yes, the laughter, of all her immigrant children.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.