Everywhere I go this week, folks are talking about the great immigration debate. My students, my colleagues, my friends -- even strangers in Starbucks are animatedly weighing in on the recent demonstrations here in Los Angeles and the ongoing policy struggle in Washington.
I find that when I think about immigration, I have two equally powerful, emotional, visceral reactions. Naturally, these reactions contradict each other.
Reaction one is rooted in my sense of myself as (on my mother's side) a sixth-generation Californian. All four of my maternal great-grandparents, and two of my great-great grandparents, were born in this state. Not many folks can say that. When my ancestors arrived here (for the Gold Rush, mostly), they found a state of perhaps a million people. When my mother was growing up, California had seven million; in my childhood, California had twenty -- and today, we have thirty-six million.
My childhood was divided between our house in Carmel and a family ranch in the hills northeast of San Jose. For as long as I can remember, we've been making that two-hour drive between these two homes with some regularity. And I've watched as field after field has been covered with new houses; I've watched the cattle and farms of my childhood (and I'm only 38!) disappear beneath "Redwood Estates" or "Glendalough Ranches" or "Belleview Manor" or whatever godawful pretentious name the developers have bestowed on their ticky-tacky tract homes. (I grew up singing the "ticky-tacky boxes" song). My mother and my grandmother bemoaned the loss of the rural, bucolic, and (I suppose) privileged life they had known, and I grew up bemoaning it with them. In college, I studied the phenomenon of false nostalgia, and ruefully recognized myself as a first-rate practitioner thereof!
I've been a Sierra Club member for a long time. If there's one "religion" my family shares, it's a commitment to preserving the environment. Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Wiccans (I have three Wiccan cousins), we are all passionate "no-growth" types. I was raised on the vaguely misanthropic nature-worshipping poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and as a child and an adult, some of my happiest times were and are in the mountains or on the beaches of my native state -- alone! I may be an extrovert, but this extrovert recharges himself in wildness.
So I look at the population growth, and my first reaction is "Dammit, we don't need any more people! We need fewer Californians!" I want to close the borders not only to immigrants from abroad, but from elsewhere in the United States. When a drought comes again, as it will, where on earth will we get our water? What will happen to our state parks as population pressures grow and grow? What will happen to a way of life that even in my childhood I knew was vanishing?
So that's reaction one. I think those thoughts for a while, and then another voice kicks in: "Hugo", I tell myself, "you're a snob and an elitist. Your family got here first and stole more, and now you want to pull up the drawbridge. Besides, affluent whites such as yourself consume more and waste more than most poor migrant families do; I'm fairly confident that Hugo (even with his conservation efforts) produces more garbage per annum than your average undocumented laborer. "
Of course, as I think those thoughts, my faith starts to kick in. I ask myself the perennial question, "What Would Jesus Do?" I recall Deuteronomy on welcoming strangers. I think about the gospel of radical love that stretches beyond borders, and I end up overwhelmed with guilt for my initial xenophobia. Instead, I cry "Throw open the borders! Make all God's children welcome! The Lord will provide (the water, the food, the freeways); we all have plenty, let's share our abundance!" I launch into impassioned and self-satisfying rhetoric about the biblical imperative to love my neighbor (without checking his immigration status). I get drunk on a satisfying cocktail of white guilt and religious zeal, and next thing you know, I want to chant "si se puede" and march in the streets, hire the next day laborer I see -- and when he's through, I want to overpay him, hug him, and invite his family for dinner.
I share these two reactions not to be self-deprecating but to be candid about the deeply emotional and confused nature of my own feelings about immigration. Of course, I am capable of rising above both a reflexive nativism and a naive Christianity. I'm aware that saying "throw open the borders and welcome everyone, 'cause God will provide" is no more of a realistic solution than "build a really really big fence." As a person of faith, I can't hide from serious policy issues behind either my beliefs or my fears, even though it is tempting to do so. It's clear that we do need a sensible border policy, and it's also clear that we have to a better job of addressing the root causes of migration. Building an economically healthy and truly democratic Latin America is the only way to cope with the problem long-term.
But charting a sensible middle-ground course is difficult. What is key, clearly, is that those of us who have emotional reactions to this issue -- and in Southern California, who doesn't? -- must be willing to consider intelligent, thoughtful compromises. We must be honest with ourselves about our real fears, and be honest too about the long-term costs of the very solutions we propose. And as we do this, we must be very, very kind to each other.