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Locking the door behind us

Soon after my husband and I bought our home in Sharon almost 20 years ago, I went to Town Hall to buy a transfer station permit. Enthusiastic about our little house in the woods, I told the selectmen’s secretary that I hoped the area would stay exactly as we’d found it. The woman gave me a hard look: “All you New Yorkers, as soon as you come up here, you want to lock the door behind you.”

She was absolutely right: Although I could only imagine how the beautiful hills had looked a century ago, I wanted Sharon to freeze in the “pristine” state I’d discovered it in. No more construction of new houses, no more cutting down of forests or widening of roads.

All this should make me sympathetic to those Americans, themselves often the children or grandchildren of immigrants, who want to lock the door behind them. Yet our current administration’s policies to prevent immigrants from crossing the southern border violate basic human rights. The truth is, keeping “them” out will not reverse, or even stop, the clock. We are no longer the country of my childhood, when our population was half its current size, and most whites could remain oblivious to the blacks and Hispanics who lived separately in second-class enclaves.   

In fact, attempts to keep America from “browning” go back over a century and were never limited to African Americans and Latinos. The Great Immigration decades between 1880 and World War I brought millions of Russian Jews and Italian Catholics to our shores, creating a surge of post-war xenophobia about the “darker races” overwhelming America’s essential Protestant character. This led to the National Origins Quota Act of 1924, which provided immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality already in the United States as of the 1890 national census, thus favoring northern and western Europeans.

In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act opened immigration to Africans and Asians. Less remembered, this Act gave priority to professionals and others with specialized skills, as well as to relatives of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents — what President Trump has termed “chain migration.” 

As a New Yorker during my career years, I reveled in the city’s capacity for embracing a continuous flow of immigrants. My palate expanded as each new group opened its own restaurants and groceries, and created its distinctive neighborhoods.

What is odd — and instructive — amidst the wave of intolerance of foreigners stoked by this administration, and the brutal policies this intolerance is used to justify, is how dramatically recent immigrants differ from how they are described. While our eyes are being trained on “Mexican rapists and drug addicts” surging across our border, more Asian immigrants than Hispanic immigrants have arrived in the U.S. annually since 2010. These Asian immigrants are mostly from China and India, and 45 percent of them have at least a college degree. By comparison, among Americans between the ages of 25 to 34, 37 percent have a bachelor’s degree or more.

Immigration, both authorized and unauthorized, from Latin America slowed following the Great Recession of 2008. Contrary to the administration’s outcry, more Mexicans have left the U.S than come here over the past few years. Most immigrants attempting to cross from Mexico into the United States have escaped the violence of failed states like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela, or even, having escaped violence in their African country, crossed the Atlantic before making the long trek north. Among the 12,800 youth currently in U.S. custody, most were sent alone by their parents in the vain hope of keeping them safe.

While immigrants constituted nearly 15 percent of the country’s population of just over 76 million around the turn of the last century, the racial quotas of the 1920s reduced the foreign-born population to below 5 percent during the middle decades of the 20th century, when our population rose to over 160 million. Despite the opening of immigration in 1965, foreign-born Americans constitute only 13 percent of our current population of 326 million.

Though almost everyone on my dirt road has extended their homes during my 20 years here, there is only one new house. The families too have remained the same, which could give the illusion that I fairly successfully locked the door behind me. Yet the fact that, within a 20-minute drive, I can buy either mole and chorizos, or miso and Asian noodles, assures me that newcomers are in our area. 

Just as we need a sensible plan for land use in Litchfield’s beautiful hills, the United States needs sane and humane immigration laws. The pity is that immigration laws have historically been prompted by nativism and a fear of change, when both locally and nationally, immigrants enrich our lives so much.

 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.