Uniformed men on horseback, lassos at the ready, chase brown and black people stumbling in the surging water of the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas.
The photographs shock. They call up long-buried images. Of the Ku Klux Klan night riding. Of patrollers chasing runaway slaves. Of Native Americans and the U.S. Cavalry at Wounded Knee. Of union-busting and tear-gassed peaceful demonstrators.
The photographs stun.
Shivers shoot up my spine.
My skin explodes with goosebumps.
Tears nudge the corners of my eyes.
My stomach does a little twist.
But all that’s nothing compared to the fear and distress I see on those faces, wet from tears and the river.
What I see is the eternal American story, only not the one taught in grade school.
That one mythologizes the creation of the Republic. If it were a bedtime story, it would go like this: Saintly Founding Fathers filled with love for the people revolted against the evil king. They signed their names to a Declaration of Independence, pledging their sacred honor. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. … And … we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
It all sounds so, well, nice. Grandfatherly caring, gray beard tickling and all.
Except there’s a catch.
Women, Blacks, Chinese, Mexicans, and anyone not carrying northern European DNA did not fall under the word “men.”
Men = White men.
Patriarchy and paternalism.
Father Knows Best.
Keeping the status quo alive.
But the dark underbelly of that creation myth leaves out a very real truth about the United States.
Immigrants gave birth to this country. Even Native Americans were immigrants came to this continent as immigrants.
Instead of fearing the Haitians on the Texas border, welcoming them opens up the possibility that among them might be future doctors, artists, writers, scientists or any number of skilled and dedicated Americans. People don’t flee their native soil without good reasons. They often fear for their lives and the lives of their children and other family members. Going into exile is never easy. But leaving home becomes necessary in the face of political and cultural oppression.
Consider the richness that immigrants bring with them.
For example, American literature would be much poorer if Edwidge Danticat had remained in Haiti. A prolific writer, her work hones the blade of exile to a fine point, clarifying the cost of crossing borders.
As she says:
“We are not meant to be in this country. We did not want to come. We were forced to flee or die. Americans perceive desperate brown masses swarming at their golden shores, wildly inventing claims of persecution for the opportunity to flourish in this prosperous land. The view from beneath the bridge is somewhat different: reluctant refugees with an aching love of their forsaken homeland, of a homeland that has forsaken them, refugees who desire nothing more than to be home again.”