Friday, July 9, 2010

Immigrant Trash

The trash that marks the routes of immigrants across the Arizona desert is not littering. It is a Trail of Tears

In the Arizona climate of unremitting hostility that has characterized the debate over immigration, it was truly uplifting recently to read a letter to the Tucson's Daily Star reminding people of faith of the deeper meaning of immigrant trash.

Rev. John Herman of Tempe wrote about the deeply human meaning of border trash. "Many of us fail to recognize what we are really seeing," he began. He then provided a context that should be obvious but rarely is heard. "This is the stuff that refugees jettison when they are so tired they can't take another step. It's like the thousands of miles of debris that folks scattered on the Oregon Trail as they journeyed toward the promise of better things on the West Coast -- personal treasures that became trash because the oxen or horses just couldn't take another step.

"It's like looking at the graves of Cherokee infants, children and grandparents who didn't survive the death march to Oklahoma. It's like opening the storage unit of someone who no longer has the rent money to pay to protect their valuables.... It's not an act of intentional littering . It's not being disrespectful of our nation. It's simply desperation.

I would hate to consider the things my own ancestors had to leave behind, including their families, when they boarded steamships for America.... Humanitarian volunteers in our Arizona desert routinely remove litter at emergency water stations. Their common reaction to removing these personal items is tears, not anger. If it is anger, it may be directed more at the causes than the victims."

These profoundly moving words reminded me of my uncle Jack, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Detroit in the late 1920s. Raised in the hardscrabble West of Ireland, having lost his mother in early childhood, Jack left for England at age 14, alone. After two years deep in the Great Depression, he headed for Detroit where he had acquaintances in the Irish community. But he had no way to lawfully enter, so he did what so many immigrants did in that and every era, he entered illegally, rowing the boat across the Detroit River at midnight.

At a memorial service for Jack when he died in his late 80s, I reminded the gathering about as history, and Bishop Bernard Harrington noted that almost everyone in gathering was the child of immigrants, that Jack was far from the only illegal Irish entrant, that it was our Irish Catholic heritage not to repeat the hostility that our ancestors experienced when they arrived.

In the decade since Jack's dad, I have been saddened by the increasingly acrimonious spirit that has shaped the immigration debate. While there are no ready-made or easy answers, the public debate about immigration policy can only be more productive if we all start by remembering that we are children of immigrants.