Friday, June 22, 2007

The more things change...

The immigration debate continues to be depressing in just so many ways, caught up as it is in the middle of so many different issues -- "homeland security," welfare and runaway healthcare costs, employment and unemployment, nativism, "law and order," and just general discontent. While some of the details change, the argument goes back a long time in American politics. (Not just the "Yellow Peril" of the 19th and 20th century west coast, but well back in the 18th century English colonies! See, for just one example, the journals of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the father of American Lutheranism.) And logic has rarely been a significant part of it.

I think it is important to remember that nearly every American is not that far removed from being an immigrant him or herself. I have a maternal great-grandmother who immigrated from Sweden. And while she was born here, my paternal grandmother was raised speaking German. But it's not just a personal observation.

I was surprised by something in my current pleasure reading, The California God Rush and the Coming of the Civil War by the historian Leonard L. Richards. California history is not quite the way we were taught it in (if I recall rightly) the 4th grade. That's not the surprise, of course. We learned about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and the Spanish explorers, Sir Francis Drake, Father Serra and the California Missions, the settlement of Los Angeles, Mexican independence from Spain, a very little about the Mexican War (though not that the peace settlement happened only a few miles away from our school), and -- of course -- John Sutter, the Gold Rush and the '49ers. Surprisingly, I don't remember being taught anything at all about Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona, but there was a rebroadcast of the Romance of the Ranchos series and hazy memories of Zorro to get a flavor of Old California. I guess by the late '60s that was too old-fashioned to teach. Anyway, I've tried to fill in some of the blanks over the years as I continue to cultivate my California roots.

This is what surprised me: of the 48 delegates to California's constututional convention in 1849, only 7 of them were Californians -- that is people who had been Mexican citizens. And even their leader, Abel Stearns, had been born and raised in Massachusetts. The rest came via President Polk's grab for Mexican territory (which is not quite how the Mexican War was originally taught to me). Quite fascinating is that one of California's first US Senators, William Gwin, came from Mississippi to California not for gold, but specifically to capture the Senate seat of state that was just about to be formed. In the space of barely 5 years, the Mexican province of Alta California became the State of California. Ah, the power of immigration, especially when its legality is questionable.

Oh, then what did the new legislature of immigrants do? Pass laws to prevent negro slaves (okay, California was admitted as a free state) and free blacks (and other persons of color) from residing in the state.

I've also been reminded of something that I had been taught, though I probably need to study up on it to speak more intelligently: the role of squatters in settling of the territories west of the Mississippi. See also economist Hernando de Soto's interesting article on the place of "squatters' rights" in helping form American property law.

The immigration battle is not as simple as the anti-immigrant politicians and pundits (most of whom I respect on many issues) usually describe it. "Send 'em back; they broke the law" makes for a good slogan. But it does so at the expense of our own identity as a people.

And in this age of Islamicist terror, it distracts us from the real enemies of America and all she stands for.