By: Robert Patton
In Europe and in America we are hearing of a new kind of slur. Even as hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children flee the countries that their ancestors occupied for centuries, we find that a great many are being turned back accused of being economic migrants. Imagine the nerve of such people. Who do they think they are seeking to improve their lives and the lives of their children? Out with them! Send them back where they belong!
Economic migrant is, in many respects, the new N-word. In the first half of the 19th century, the underground railway helped escaped slaves to make their way to Canada where they would be able to live and work as free people. By today’s standards, they might have been investigated to make sure that only those who had been mistreated and had the scars to prove it would be accepted. Those that simply wanted freedom and a better life, those that were economic migrants, would be turned back. Wait you say, those people were slaves! So they were and so are people anywhere who live in places where governments dictate to them where they must live, how they must work, and who they may associate with.
Let me confess. My own mother was an economic migrant, the youngest of five girls and two boys living in a village in a Soviet controlled part of what is now Poland. None that I know of were persecuted or otherwise threatened; they just wanted a better life. Only the seven children came to America and they raised each other in Brooklyn. None of them went to college, but most of their children did.
America was built by economic migrants. Even the relatively small number that left Europe because they practiced an unpopular religion were primarily interested in a better life. And a better life is what most of them were able to create. What these people built here benefited the country as a whole. Because hard-working creative people came here from many different places throughout the world, America became the richest nation on the planet.
But there is a catch. When most of our ancestors came here to build a better life, they did it largely on their own. Those that couldn’t speak English took difficult, dirty, low paying jobs. But even the lowest rung on a ladder is the first step and the American ladder proved to be very tall. Unfortunately everything is different now. Migrants, whether economic or not, whether refugee or not, come to new countries on either side of the Atlantic with an expectation that they will be provided for. My mother was a very small girl when she arrived at Ellis Island, but it was her older siblings that cared for her. And there were no refugee camps to feed, house, and clothe her and the other members of her family.
That’s all changed now. Today we have college educated men and women called social workers and their job is to provide social services, not just to those in desperate need but to any who apply and meet relatively generous criteria. We think of this as humanitarian and it is. We all mean well and we feel that the humanitarian approach is a major step up from the hardscrabble lives endured by the poor in past decades and centuries.
Unfortunately there is a harsh price to pay for all this fairness and benevolence and social consciousness. We may pat ourselves on the back for our progressive ideas, but when a stranger appears that does not speak good English and appears willing to take any job that will feed his or her family, we look away. Worse than that we want such poor individuals removed from our society, sent back to wherever they came from. With one hand we offer free sustenance, but with the other we push them away. We rationalize this. Our taxes are too high already. We cannot afford these people. If we let them stay they will take away American (or European, or British) jobs. And so we send them back where they came from and they are welcomed by those ready to exploit them in their home countries. Perhaps they take low paying jobs producing cheap goods that flood our markets and really take away our jobs. But that’s OK because now they are behind a curtain called a national border and we don’t have to think about them anymore. And all any of them really wanted from us was what our ancestors found, the opportunity to be free and to work hard to build a good life.