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A Humane Debate 

Immigration is a real problem about real people, and the debate should reflect that.

From earliest childhood to my late 30s, I listened to my maternal grandmother tell stories of her immigration to America as a young girl. That experience took her from a thatched roof village in 19th-century Germany to the sometimes sod-house world of Iowa and North Dakota. As her eyes and mind dimmed, her memories of those days sharpened.

In one story, a brother departs secretly. Old enough for the German military draft, he must use subterfuge. The first steps were hardest: One day father and brother walk to the local mill to grind grain; false papers sufficed once on the road; the family knows (but cannot reveal) they may never see brother again.

But they do. Grandma and the rest reunite in Iowa. On the way, she and friends escape adult supervision in the ship’s steerage quarters to explore the boiler room. More than a half century later, she described the scene of “huge, sweaty men shoveling coal into giant furnaces.”

Once in America, she experienced the direct German way of doing what was needed. So she could “learn the ways,” work was arranged with an American family. She is escorted to the farmer’s gate, then sent, alone at age 12, to introduce herself and make her place in her new land. [drop cap]

When I first listened to those adventures as a child, I silently cursed the fate that condemned me to spend my youth in the Spokane Valley of the 1950s, a place that seemed (to a child’s eye) so steeped in stability it could draw tears of boredom from a stone. Military service, career and tourism later took me abroad. However, like most of my generation, I never even considered betting my daily bread on my ability to cope in a foreign society.

Not so my daughter. In the late 1980s, she and a college friend sought their fortunes in the growing Asian economy. They started by teaching “American” to Taiwanese businessmen. Already trained in textbook English, their clients valued that skill for dealing with American customers. Obtained from public notice boards, their tutoring jobs paid rent on a single room. From my daughter’s description it had all the charm and convenience of some American jail cells.

They paid their dues and worked up in Asian expatriate culture. Her benefits eventually included a job troubleshooting in the factories of newly capitalist coastal China, at a salary that afforded a comfortable Hong Kong apartment.

For me, there were more stories. My favorite concerns her meetings with Chinese factory officials to discuss American customer expectations. These were mature men who had spent their lives giving and taking orders in Communist China, but who had little experience dealing with customers. I suspect they were equally unfamiliar with having new expectations communicated by young, foreign women.

My daughter and her great-grandmother missed sharing their adventures by only a few years. I was more fortunate. One thing that experience did was shape my thinking about today’s immigration controversy.

I know the realities of modern immigration. Some immigrants are fleeing for their lives. Others have been fooled or forced into virtual slavery. Most, however, have voluntarily bet what they know and love on their ability to make better lives in a lesser-known world, if not for themselves, then for their families, present or future.

The walking lumps we see as we drive past fields and orchards and the silent forms moving through our motel rooms are adventurers who have risked more than most of us will ever dare. If they sometimes look sullen and shabby, it is because they have adopted the methods and priorities of the combat soldier: head down, mouth shut, survival first, fashion later.

That was my perspective when I listened to Jim Gilchrist speak at this year’s Lincoln Day Dinner on March 31, the annual Spokane County Republican fundraiser. Gilchrist heads the Minutemen, an organization of volunteers who search the United States-Mexico border for illegal immigrants.

Much of what Gilchrist said made sense. Laws should be complied with. Immigrants bring costs as well as benefits, particularly for vulnerable citizens with whom they compete. Politicians of both parties have been self-serving and duplicitous. Republicans rage about America being overwhelmed by “foreign hordes,” while welcoming cheap labor to staff factories and serve upper-class families. Democrats favor policies that amount to importing future Democratic voters.

Unfortunately, Gilchrist spoiled his chance to make those important points, with me anyway. In his speech and literature, he was clearly willing to denigrate immigrants themselves in order to promote his organization and its favored policies. Of several examples, I refer in particular to handouts describing the alleged numbers of rapes and other crimes committed by illegal aliens.

“Compared to what?” was the obvious question those statistics raised. “Compared to them being gone” would be a likely answer. Americans must put up with the law breaking of legal residents (including you and I) because we have a right to be here. By comparison, the solution for illegal aliens is to throw them out.

I neither accept nor reject that reasoning concerning solutions to the immigration problem. I claim no solution. What I do claim is offense at the suggestion that the worse — and even less human — we make immigrants (legal or illegal) look in the eyes of our fellow Americans, the closer we are to a solution.

Gilchrist has important things to say. He must choose better methods of saying them.

Robert Stokes is a retired professor in Spokane. He can be reached at [email protected]

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