David Moats: Immigration is not just ‘their story.’ It’s our story, the story of America.

Immigration protesters
About 130 people gathered at a rally outside Burlington City Hall in February 2020 to support a resolution that would make it more difficult for local law enforcement to collaborate with immigration enforcement agencies. File photo by Sarah Asch/VTDigger

Columns are opinion pieces regularly contributed by a select group of writers. Columns reflect the opinions of the writer and do not represent VTDigger’s views.

Thousands of migrants gathering on the U.S.-Mexico border have created an atmosphere of crisis easily exploited by politicians willing to scare Americans into believing the nation is vulnerable to invasion by alien hordes.

An opinion piece in Politico argues that the mindset of crisis is not attuned to reality. Justin Gest, a professor at George Mason University, says that most Americans find themselves stranded between two points of view — Republicans warning of alien hordes and Democrats focusing on the poverty and violence that are the cause of migration. 

“Few leaders,” Gest writes, “are framing global migration as a normal, natural phenomenon that is ultimately in the common interest.”

Vermonters are learning about the benefits of migration. Migrants from Mexico and Central America are an essential part of the state’s economy, performing the labor that is crucial to getting Vermont’s milk to market. That many or most of them are here without documentation does not diminish the important contribution they are making to the state.

If migration is a “normal, natural phenomenon,” what’s not normal is the political paralysis that has prevented the United States from instituting reasonable procedures for regulating the flow of migration for the benefit of all. So thousands gather at the border, seeking asylum or other means of entry, or they make the attempt to elude the Border Patrol during their dangerous journey through the desert.

Vermonters may have become familiar with the migrants’ stories through the book “The Most Costly Journey,” a collection of first-person narratives by Vermont farm workers. The accounts of their journeys and their lives in Vermont tell of hardship, heartbreak, ambition, and courage.

Another account that has received wide attention is the book “Solito” by Javier Zamora. Zamora is now an acclaimed poet, but in his book he goes back to his 9-year-old self and tells the story through his 9-year-old eyes of the journey he made from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, and ultimately to the United States. He describes his fears, loneliness, and hopes. And he describes the adults around him and their sometimes kind, sometimes cruel and inexplicable behaviors.

His parents had come to the United States years before and were living in California. Violence in El Salvador had forced his father to flee, and his mother followed. Zamora’s grandparents had arranged with “coyotes,” the guides who lead migrants to and across the border, to take the boy with a group of men and women by public bus north from El Salvador. 

Luckily, a mother and her daughter and a young man named Chino took young Javier under their wing during the many stages of their journey. U.S. border officers intercepted them twice in the Arizona desert and sent them back to Mexico, but on their third attempt they made it across. Once Javier arrived with about 40 others at an apartment house in Tucson, the coyote called Javier’s parents in California, and they flew immediately to Arizona, where they paid $1,500 to receive their son.

A process that, in Gest’s words, ought to be normal and natural had become a life-threatening ordeal. How do we transform the process?

Gest argues against vilifying migrants and also against guilt-tripping those for whom immigration seems like a threat. Instead, he observes that when we begin to see immigrants as neighbors with something to offer, become accustomed to their presence, appreciate what they bring to America, then panic about immigration fades. Thus, to move to meaningful immigration reform, our culture and our thinking must change.

That is what is happening in Vermont. The presence of farm workers and their families in towns around the state is becoming normal. As long as immigration officers refrain from punitive raids, life can proceed in a constructive way. Latina women are availing themselves of various venues to make delicious Mexican food available to the public, and the public is responding. Schools and clinics are becoming multicultural settings that have adapted to the changes. Large Latino populations in other parts of the country may seem like a threat to the prevailing culture, but inevitably that culture is changing.

Vermont is far from the surging crowds at the southern border, so the sense of crisis here is not acute. But the potential for crisis is going to be with us for decades to come. 

Taking a broad view, historically and geographically, we see that migration has been a constant in human history all around the world. In the 19th century, violence and poverty in Europe persuaded millions of immigrants to make the journey to America. That people are seeking to escape violence and poverty today by traveling to Europe and America should be no surprise.

Who knows what degrees of poverty, oppression and stifled opportunity brought my own ancestors to America in the 19th century from Denmark, Wales, Germany, France, Ireland, and even from tiny Luxembourg? When my great-grandfather, a tailor, arrived in America with his sewing machine on his back, was his quest markedly different from that of Venezuelans and Salvadorans arriving today? 

In Vermont, Irish, Italian, Polish, French-Canadian, Finnish, and Welsh communities still exist, and the influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America has more recently enriched the state’s ethnic makeup.

The richer nations of the world have a choice. They can embrace the reality of migration by arranging for an orderly process that respects the humanity of migrants, or they can adopt an us-vs.-them attitude and engage in a futile, punitive effort to hold back the global demographic tides. This choice will be with us for decades and will go a long way toward defining our societies.

My Danish heritage gave my family aebleskivers (a kind of rounded pancake cooked in a special cast-iron pan), and my Mexican neighbors now offer sublime enchiladas. But there is more involved than food. 

Javier Zamora endured fear and hardship as a boy to join his parents in California, and now he is a noted poet and author. The mother-daughter pair who looked out for him on his journey as a 9-year-old went off to join someone in Virginia. They could just as well have been coming to Vermont to join a husband and father on a farm in Addison County. 

This is not just their story. It’s our story, the story of America.

David Moats

About David

David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.

Email: davidrmoats@gmail.com

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