Monday, July 30, 2007

Immigrant Dynamics Today: What Would Woody Guthrie Sing?

"This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land is made for you and me."

The well-known folk song, "This Land Is Your Land" was written by Woody Guthrie more than 60 years ago. Guthrie's verses were wrapped in spirited lyrics embodying his personal perspective, and his sense of a nation with rich and vibrant communities, with individuals from all walks of life, each contributing to the nation's future.

Today, schoolchildren can be heard singing the song at school assemblies and performances, or it can be heard at marches and holiday events. Guthrie borrowed the melody from a Baptist hymn in what could be perceived as his nod to a common human and spiritual energy. In more recent times, George H.W. Bush used the song during his presidential campaign.

While much has changed since Guthrie wrote the song, the desire to make this a land -and country - embodying the song's spirit has not. From this perspective,it is troubling to hear talk show hosts, media pundits, elected officials and others stoke the anti-immigrant fire.

Despite the recent defeat of Hazleton, Pennsylvania's proposed ordinances, which targeted the town's small undocumented immigrant population, the shrill call for increased enforcement, walls and deportations has not abated. Restrictionist and nativist thinking continue, and these voices have made it their task to avoid the facts, bend the facts and pursue the fiction side in this difficult debate. And so they are demanding new resolutions, ordinances and punitive local measures in their townships and cities.

While purportedly designed to distinguish between those who followed the 'legal' migration process to the United States and those who did not, the proposed local and state ordinances have already had a negative impact on the quality of life of immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike.

In fact, an estimated 40 to 50% of the nation's undocumented population entered the country with a work or tourist visa and overstayed their time here, many opting not to return to extremely difficult economic, political and social conditions in their homelands. In the meantime, they have settled here, found jobs, married and formed families as well. These estimated 12 million persons have been waiting for a solution to their immigration limbo; they also worry about the future, the knock-on-the-door that might send their lives into a full tailspin, and the possible break up of their families. Still, concrete solutions to this dilemma have not yet surfaced. As they wait, increased anti-immigrant energy has created new tensions and hostilities toward them.

For example, at a recent immigration rally held in Morristown, New Jersey, the tension was quite palpable. One sign read, "Deport Them All," while the town's Mayor Donald Cresitello, rallied those present to urge New Jersey's Governor Corzine to deputize local police officers as immigration agents. It would not be far-fetched to assume that the community's common unity has been ruptured, neighborliness in the town has nearly disappeared, and degrading stereotypes have surfaced.

Unfortunately, whether in Morristown or other parts of the nation, what is evident is that calls for local efforts have led to increased racial profiling, the abuse of basic civil and human rights, and side-stepped the bigger picture of a comprehensive solution to the problem. Immigration is the purview of the federal government, and while local mayors and other officials may think that increased enforcement will solve the situation, the unspoken message is that these actions are shaped by misguided perceptions that have also ignored changing global forces, succumbed to stereotypes and increasing hostility toward newcomers, in this case, immigrants.

A more practical and prudent step for municipalities and state governments to take would be to urge Congressional leaders to create fair solutions and concrete legislation. Yet another positive step would be to follow the example of other cities (e.g., Portland, New Haven). Leaders in these communities have opted to enter into dialogue between immigrants and non-immigrants, and identify opportunities and common ground that engage every person in community betterment and positive growth.

Taking actions which eviscerate the basic rights and freedoms of undocumented immigrants is not the solution; these actions do not embody the basic principles of an inclusive, democratic nation, nor do these address the structural reforms that the nation's immigration system desperately needs.

As a singing troubadour Guthrie often traveled throughout the nation and occasionally followed migrants across the Great Plains. Guthrie sang about justice, democracy and the rights of workers. It is highly likely that he would now take up his guitar and in a prophetic call for justice, sing out:

As I go walking this ribbon of highway
I see above me the endless skyway
And all around me the wind keeps saying:
This land is made for you and me.