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Learning to live with the builders of America

by Klaus Naumann and Hiroaki Sato

During one week this month, the drivers of four taxis that I took hailed from four different countries.

One of them said his was a small country near India when I asked him where he was from, my standard question when I see the driver’s nameplate. Nepal? No. Bhutan? No. Sri Lanka? No. The answer: Bangladesh.

I had never thought of Bangladesh as a small country, even though my niece Haruko had visited it as a foreign-aid officer after her three-year stint in Kathmandu. So when I came home I checked: Bangladesh is certainly not much larger than Nepal.

I could not guess where another driver was from, except to tell him that his name sounded like the famous writer Rashdie. He straightened me out: His name Haroon Rashid is the same as that of an ancient king of Baghdad.

The name that puzzled me the most — as it seemed to end with “gV” (as I saw it) — turned out to be Bulgarian. When he learned where I was from, he said he knew his homeland is known for yogurt in Japan because of a Bulgarian athlete, although he did not seem to recognize “sumo wrestling.”

The driver who looked East Asian — Chinese and Koreans are a definite minority among New York City taxi drivers — was from Indonesia. He laughed happily when I burst out singing Bengawan Solo. It was one of the songs my father taught me when I was a boy. An officer of the Special Higher Police, he was part of the contingent sent to Jakarta following Japan’s initial victories in the Pacific War.

I thought of these people when I read in the New York Times that the Obama administration might soften its immigration policy (“U.S. to Review Cases Seeking Deportations,” Nov. 17). Immigration reform, which mostly concerns Hispanics, is yet another area where President Barack Obama has failed to deliver on his 2008 campaign pledge.

Indeed, just last month, a Hispanic leader voiced rising anger among his constituents.

“President Obama and the Democrats are no better than Republicans on immigration,” Roberto Lovato of the advocacy group Presente.org declared, USA Today reported. “They’re worse right now because they’re in power and deporting more people than President Bush did.”

Figures bear him up. Over the past decade, one kind of U.S. deportation, called “removals,” have more than doubled — from 188,000 in 2000 to 387,000 in 2010. Practically all of them involved Hispanics.

Particularly galling to the Hispanics — they had supported Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign in droves — is this: From President George Bush’s last year, 2008, to President Barack Obama’s first, 2009, the number of “removals” — those who have committed “criminal” or “administrative” violations — increased by 10 percent. From 2009 to 2010 it dipped somewhat, but Obama’s Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promises it will reach “historic levels” this year.

These increases coincide with the precipitous fall of the Hispanic migration on the Mexican border. The main indicator of the migration is the other kind of deportations, “returns”: those who are arrested on the Mexican border on “procedural” violations — lack of necessary papers — and are “returned.”

The number of these “returns” has dropped 70 percent over the past decade: from 1,676,000 — historic high — in 2000, to 476,000 in 2010. It is expected to fall further this year, by 30 percent or more from last year.

There’s just one problem: Except for those who have actually committed a “crime,” the difference between “removals” and “returns” appears technical: proximity to the border or the length of stay in this country. This is evident in this month’s “directive” of the Immigration and Citizen Enforcement: It simply tells its agents to focus their target to those who have committed crimes and go light on those who haven’t.

The great majority of “removals,” like all “returns,” are “illegal” only because they come here without proper papers. And the “illegal aliens” come here to work, and they mostly do in what the Japanese call “3K jobs,” the counterpart to the “3D jobs” in the U.S.: dirty, dangerous, demeaning.

Most of these deportations — and, for that matter, the fear and anxiety with which illegal aliens must live — go against both the practice of the “nation of immigrants” and, yes, its spirit.

First, the practice part: The United States continues to accept great numbers of immigrants and grant citizenship to a great many. Last year, for all the anti-immigration talk, more than a million people became U.S. immigrants and 620,000 U.S. citizens.

For comparison, in 2005, when the European Union admitted 1.8 million immigrants, the U.S. accepted 1.2 million. Proportionate to the total population, the U.S. was 1.9 times more accommodating than the EU that year. Little wonder, I met four taxi drivers from four different countries within the span of a week.

When it comes to the spirit part, Robert Morgenthau, until two years ago Manhattan District Attorney for more than three decades, reminded us last month that this is the 125th anniversary of the French gift that’s known worldwide as Symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty.

In doing so, he quoted lines from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet inscribed on the monument’s base (“Huddled Masses, Turned Away,” New York Times, Oct. 27).

To expand somewhat Morgenthau’s quotation from “The New Colossus,” which I once translated into Japanese, the last lines read:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Morgenthau’s argument was a little disappointing. The one example he cited as someone he, as Manhattan district attorney, rescued from the clutch of immigration officials was the daughter of the famous film director Costa-Gavras, Julie. She had overstayed on her visa during her previous visit. Still, his point was clear.

Of course, the ideal Emma Lazarus expressed was just that: an ideal. Prejudice against immigrants in the U.S. goes back, books tell us, to its Colonial Period. Most famously, Benjamin Franklin asserted, as regards German “immigrants”: “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.” That was in 1751.

The irony is that Germans at the time were actively sought because of their soil-conservation ability as farmers. Why malign the Hispanics today when they do work most “Americans” do not do or are unable to do?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.