Coming to America

Posted: May 24, 2006 12:01 AM

They keep coming to America, legal and illegal, by hook or crook, and every couple of decades Congress fixes what is known as the immigration problem. But of course it doesn't stay fixed - because America keeps attracting new waves of immigrants who keep finding new ways to make it in.

If immigration is a problem, a greater one would be if America were no longer worth coming to, if people were desperate to get out rather than get in. There are countries like that in the world, lots of them.

So long as others want to come here, are literally dying to come here, you can be sure there's something worth coming here for - freedom, work, opportunity, a chance to begin anew, to raise their children as Americans . . . .

Now we're going to build a wall to keep these interlopers out. Fine. Good luck. But something there is that doesn't love a wall, said a very American poet. Call it hope.

Certainly the wall will reduce the flow of illegals, or at least inspire them to search for new ways to make it in. But they're not going to give up on their dream. Any more than earlier generations of immigrants did.

Certainly the borders should be strengthened. If a country's going to have borders, it ought to have borders. Real ones. La ley es la ley. The law is the law. But desperation is a kind of law, too.

As for the few thousand Guardsmen who'll be sent to back up the Border Patrol, an observer can be forgiven for thinking their deployment has more to do with mending the president's political fences than those along the border.

This little show will be worth it if it keeps the demagogues from dividing us over immigration, and allows us to reach a consensus on how to assimilate the millions who have set down roots here illegally.

Whatever the outcome of this debate over immigration, don't think the huddled masses will stop trying to make it to the golden door. Those who speak so glibly about sealing off the nation's borders can't have any idea of what real desperation is. And what it will drive people to.

It might help if they caught the next rerun of Elia Kazan's classic film "America, America." What would its young hero not have done to make it to the promised land? And is there anyone who's seen the picture who hasn't rooted for him all the long, long way?

There is a line in Elia Kazan's script that has stayed with me. The hero has left behind home and family and mother tongue; he has killed rather than be killed, and lied and cheated his way across an ocean. He has played every base role from thief to gigolo to make it to America, America.

Now, with the Promised Land in sight, our hero is confronted by the very voice of the Old World - the cynical, brutish, cuckolded husband who is about to turn him over to the authorities. But before he does, the old man taunts him: Don't you know this new world will turn out to be as corrupt as the old? Just what do you expect will happen to you in this wonderful America of ours? And the young man answers without thinking: "I will be washed clean."

You can't stop someone like that, not so long as he has breath. He is already an American. He believes in the future. He believes in the dream. He believes in the possibility - no, the reality - of redemption.

My mother, who was not given to exaggeration, or to idle speech in general, used to tell about standing in the desperate crowd in front of the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw to apply for a visa amidst the ruin that was Poland after the First World War. Nineteen and alone, she had little more than the clothes on her back and an address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

But she would not be stopped. She remembered slipping off her shoe from time to time so she could use the rubber heel to erase anything on the application that, according to the endless rumors that moved up and down the line, might keep her out. She had plenty of time to consider and reconsider each entry on the form, to write and erase, and then rewrite and re-erase, to pray and pray again . . . .

What wouldn't she have done to get to America, America! She was always thankful she made it.

So am I, so am I.