Posted Feb 26, 2017 at 2:01 AM
Ten years ago, I bonded out undocumented immigrants caught in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid. They were all indigenous Mayan from Guatemala working hard for dirt wages in a New Bedford textile factory making backpacks for U.S. soldiers. Conservative talk radio hosts asked me if I was crazy. After the news of President Trump’s Muslim ban, I feel compelled to tell the truth: I am an immigrant supremacist.
I believe that when my ancestors came to America, they were willing to work harder than I did, take more risks, accept lower pay, work more jobs, and save more to send back home. Out of desperation, they became productive despite deplorable living conditions. It is just as true for the immigrants today.
Hyperbole? Yes. Downright untrue? Sometimes. But as a generalization, we dare not label it an alternative fact, first, because there are multiple ways to prove it is true. But perhaps more important, it is the American story that unifies us, a foundation myth which, if denied, denies our exceptionalism.
For much of our history, the immigrant DNA stayed in us. Like immigrants, we kept moving looking for work. We moved out West, we moved from share-crop farms and Appalachia to Detroit. We moved from dust-covered farms and from empty mining towns. As recent as the energy crisis in the 1980s, we moved from auto making towns to oil boom towns. Millions of Americans constantly moving, oftentimes unsuccessfully.
Until now. We just do not move as much. Experts say that our mobility has sharply declined. In his 2016 book “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance points to the failure of Appalachian residents to move as a big cause of their staying poor. There used to be a Hillbilly Highway to Detroit. Now there is despair.
Have I moved? Yes, five times over 16 years. I left Boston for New York and then Washington, D.C., followed by Bolivia, before moving back to New York, only to move to Los Angeles and finally back to Boston. Always chasing a job; some worked out, others did not. If this appears alien to you, maybe some of your immigrant DNA has evaporated. Answer these questions to see if you need to top it off:
— If there are no longer jobs near your home, will you move to where jobs are, even without any promise you will find one?
— If the jobs offer dirt wages but are plentiful, will you take more than one?
— Would you find a way to save and send money home from those wages?
— Would you learn a new culture or language to survive?
If you answered no to all these questions you may be down more than a quart.
Staying put will not fill your tank. Your best relatives may have been your first. Embrace their story and follow it.
Bob Hildreth lives in Boston.