If you’ve been reading this blog for the past few months, you know how I feel about the anti-immigrant hysteria gripping the country and you understand from where my position is generated.
I also understand the opposite side.
I was driving to work on Friday when ahead of me, I saw trash being dropped from a white van parked down the street. Not one to mind my own business, I rolled down my passenger window and stopped beside the van.
“Excuse me.” The young woman who was texting or something looked up. I continued, “You dropped trash on the street. You should pick it up.”
The young woman went back to her texting.
“Pick it up. The street is not your trashcan. The planet is not your trashcan. You shouldn’t be throwing trash on the ground.”
The young woman looked up again. “I will.”
Knowing full well that she wouldn’t, I pushed it more “Can you please pick it up now?”
Another woman on the other side of the van was loading stuff onto the front seat. I pulled up the car a bit to speak to her.
“You know you shouldn’t be throwing trash in the street.”
The other woman assured me that I had been heard the first time and been told that in fact, they would be picking up the trash.
I promised them that I would return to see that it was picked up.
I should have pretended to write down the license plate number.
I do these things from time to time, either out of an irrational desire to experience a gunshot wound or just out of bossy arrogance.
As I was driving away, I realized, in an esprit d'escalier moment, what I should have said. See, these women were Latin American immigrants. What I ought to have told them was that if ICE ever came for them or deported anyone they knew, that they would be partly to blame. I should have told them that part of the reason that Arizona and other states were adopting hateful anti-immigration policies was because of people like them. I should have told them that they could not expect to be welcomed in this country if they are going to casually throw trash in the streets and turn our neighborhoods into the same type of ghettos that they escaped.
We do have to be honest about this, don’t we? On the one hand, we should acknowledge that anti-immigrant fervor is fueled by divisive political opportunists exploiting economic insecurity. That so many state and local governments face bankruptcy makes the scapegoating of immigrants inevitable. It’s an old story.
On the other hand, if I notice people throwing trash in the streets of my neighborhood; if I notice tagging on walls and trees; if I notice my local park taken over by unlicensed vendors and if I notice that all the perpetrators seem to be of similar cultural identity, wouldn’t it be easy to convince me that maybe those people should be forced to leave my country before they turn it into a place like their country?
I’m not saying the haters are right. A lot of nice, law-abiding, tax-paying people will get hurt in the conflicts that lie ahead. And when I write “law-abiding” that’s what I mean. There are people who entered this country through legitimate channels who will . . . get . . . hurt. There are many more people who are law-abiding in every other way who will get hurt. There are American citizens who will get hurt.
I don’t know the status of the women I chided. I know they weren’t born here. Maybe they’re here legally. Maybe they’re not. But I know they know people who are not here legally. Everyone does. Those women do not make their situations any better. They do not make a case for themselves. They make it harder for everyone.
It’s like when a certain nation is surrounded by enemy states and then oppresses a certain group of people within its own state; committing human rights violations and launching military offensives while at the same time expecting support and sympathy from the rest of the world community. Not without enemies enough, that state acts as its own worst enemy.
So, in any circumstance, while we can sympathize with a certain group we should also recognize that even the smallest of our actions have consequences and can inflame those who oppose us.
Let’s not be our own worst enemies.