I was at my local burger-chain joint the other day and noticed for the first time that all of the employees spoke Spanish to each other behind the counter. Their English was more than good enough for them to conduct business with me, but the observation troubled me for reasons I couldn’t immediately identify.
I’ve been to Mexican border towns numerous times, and the situation there at the very same burger-chain places was no different. But this was engrafted onto the entire ambiance of the border town itself: severe air pollution, surreal architecture, crumbling infrastructure, an abundance of beggars, cardboard shanty towns — in short, the Third World.
In April of this year, in these pages, I raised peripherally the question, “What exactly are we trying to protect by virtue of our policies on immigration, especially illegal immigration from south of the border?” The debate on the immigration issue is a furious one. Such factors as necessary cheap labor, crime, gangs, drugs, public services, language, have been raised as central to the question. All of these factors are real and to varying degrees important.
But why does the average native-born non-Hispanic American, as seems the case, oppose open borders and unlimited immigration so vehemently? First, I don’t believe that what is involved is simply anti-Latino xenophobia — as is so often proclaimed by those in favor of open borders, the United States is a nation of immigrants. But the “melting pot” image has largely been replaced by one more like a patchwork quilt. I grew up in New York City. The neighborhood model was pretty much accepted: You lived among “your own people” and kept out of particular areas if you wanted to stay healthy. This is still largely true in big cities. There may well be racist aspects at play here, but such attitudes persist despite our best efforts to create a racially neutral society. Unfortunately, it remains true that many people feel more at home around those they see as “like them.” Most people feel a certain nostalgia, even longing, for their childhood homes. This sentiment is heard often in our popular music: Consider Bob Dylan’s pity for the poor immigrant who wishes he’d stayed at home.
In a more contemporary setting, there is Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town.” This heart-rending song shows clearly the toll that recent and radical change in the American way of life has taken on the average citizen: “Now main street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores.
“Seems there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.
“They’re closing up the textile mill across the railroad track.
“Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back To your hometown.”
To be sure, this state of affairs is not the fault of immigrants, legal or illegal. But the emotions are real nevertheless. At the end of the song, the tale comes full circle as the narrator echoes his father’s words from decades before: “Last night me and Kate we laid in bed, talking ‘bout getting out.
“Packing up our bags maybe heading south.
“I’m thirty five we got a boy of our own now.
“Last night I sat him up behind the wheel And said son take a good look around.
“This is your home town.”
When I left my home town 35 years ago heading west, there were real adjustments to be made. Lifestyles were different, as were values and priorities. But it was still America, my country. I’ve lived in other cities in different regions, and the same held true. Local customs and social rules had to be learned and followed. But again, it was still America.
I realize that change is inevitable, and that the home town of my childhood, my own small neighborhood, is by now little more than a memory. But were we to open our southern border, a truly massive influx of peoples — not just Mexicans — would result. One thing I’d like to leave to my children is an America that will change gradually, and the knowledge that wherever within our borders they found themselves they would recognize America; maybe not their home town, but still America.
Frederick Grab is a former California deputy attorney general.