The comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a joke that goes like this: “I am for open immigration, but that sign we have on the front of the Statue of Liberty, 'Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...' Can't we just say, 'Hey, the door's open, we'll take whoever you got?’ Do we have to specify the ‘wretched refuse?’”
It’s a funny observation. It is also a reminder that we here in America have been in the business of providing opportunity to the downtrodden for a good long while. Also, that immigrants in the old days didn’t exactly show up on yachts wearing top hats and tuxedos.
Certain Irish American pundits should keep this in mind, in light of the anything-but-funny immigration problem currently unfolding on our southern borders.
Let’s be clear -- the large number of children as well as adults streaming from Central America to the U.S. to flee poverty, crime and gang violence is a humanitarian crisis.
Let’s also be clear on this -- if there is blame to go around, if Republicans and Democrats can agree on anything – which they can’t, but whatever – they can agree that there is plenty of blame for them both to share when it comes to America’s immigration mess.
Nevertheless, to the likes of former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, the arrival of these refugees – dare I call them “huddled masses…yearning to breathe free” – is symbolic of something bigger, larger, uglier.
“Normal Americans,” Noonan laments “are seeing all this on TV” and fear “they are witnessing a level of lawlessness that has terrible implications for the country.”
Then Noonan unspools some scary, sci-fi-level imagery.
“This is how I think normal people are experiencing what is happening. It's like you live in a house that's falling apart. The roof needs to be patched and there are squirrels in the attic, a hornet's nest in the eaves. The basement's wet. The walkway to the front door is cracked with grass growing through it. The old boiler is making funny sounds.
“On top of that it's always on your mind that you could lose your job tomorrow and must live within strict confines so you can meet the mortgage and pay the electric bill. You can't keep the place up and you're equal parts anxious, ashamed and angry. And then one morning you look outside and see . . . all these people standing on your property, looking at you, making some mute demand.”
Here come the brain-eating zombies from Guatemala!
You can only try and laugh because otherwise you might cry – or worse, become angry and violent. That is generally what happens when folks dehumanize the “wretched refuse” that has been washing up on American shores since, you know, the days of the Irish Famine.
Yet Noonan and her ilk presumably do not see the irony of her channeling her inner George Templeton Strong. He was the meticulous 19th century diarist who believed mass Irish Catholic immigration was symbolic of forces that were destroying the America he knew and loved.
It’s pretty weird that desperate immigrants seem to have a more positive, optimistic view of America than well-fed pundits, who seem to have such little faith in America’s traditions or institutions. Is there no pride or solace at all to be taken from the fact that after all this time America is still a beacon of hope for desperate people?
Again, let’s be clear. A solution is needed at the border, and it need not involve America swinging its doors open and letting in every hungry soul from Central America.
Could President Obama have handled this better? Duh! But are the president’s critics exploiting this genuine crisis to create the impression that America is inches from sliding into an apocalyptic nightmare? Double duh!
Still, if these devotees of St. Ronald Reagan are still struggling with the complexities of U.S. history, perhaps something a little more personal might encourage them to tone down the rhetoric when it comes to immigration.
Back in 1980, Reagan’s brother Neil told the Los Angeles Times that Regan’s Irish grandfather was not exactly, uh, legal.
“He was probably one of the early wetbacks, except that he came in from Canada instead of Mexico,” Neil Regan said.
Somehow, America survived.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)