Friday, April 30, 2010

An American Story

Caveat Lector: If you are not interested in my opinion about something that has nothing to do with writing... you'll want to read a different post.


At the mouth of New York harbor, at the confluence of the Hudson and the Atlantic stands the tiny island of Ellis. This sandbar in the mouth of a tidal estuary might go unnoticed save the giant copper statue that adorns her, a modern-day Colossus standing athwart the harbor of America's most celebrated city.  At the base of this statue once stood the entry point through which millions of immigrants passed, their names changed seemingly at random into something that sounded 'more American'. But not all were subjected to this treatment.

But some of them went around...

I can speak of one man who did not pass through those hallowed and infamous halls. He passed the statue hidden in a barrel in the hold of a ship, on which he had stowed away with the assistance of a friend. Thereafter he was nicknamed "Trommel" which means Barrel in the German dialect he spoke. This man disappeared into the rapidly industrializing heartland of America and eventually settled in Missouri.

So I sit with this man in mind as I listen to the debate rage around me on the subject of immigration. As I ponder the xenophobia and isolationism and try to separate it from the genuine fear of what lies 'over there' and how we are to keep it from coming 'over here'. I listen to the language that frames the debate. I can tell the person's leanings by their vernacular ere they ever voice an opinion. 'Illegal alien' is a message that invokes fear. 'Undocumented worker' is a message that implies that they had their documents a moment ago and merely misplaced them... The unallied speak a mishmash of both and the professionally unaligned (or perhaps misaligned) media waffles as it always does trying to please all while really pleasing none.

The arguments are familiar... They come here and refuse to assimilate. They don't speak our language. They drive down wages and burden our schools and our health system. They are an undocumented underclass doing jobs no American would do for a wage no American would accept.

They cook our food, they clean the hotel rooms, nanny our children and grow the vegetables and fruits that nourish our bodies. The sweat of their low-wage brows keeps the price of our food low, their toil means that even the poorest legal citizen can afford California oranges and Washington apples. They are here, a genie out of the bottle and they will never go away. They are the veritable serfs of the agri-business overlords, with no recourse to the law because they live beyond the law. A blight on our national conscience. An outlaw band of misfits and miscreants.

Huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Wretched refuse of the teeming shore...

"They won't assimilate! They speak their own language and won't learn ours."

Trommel never spoke English within his own family. I think he eventually learned English, but in the kitchens and dining rooms they spoke German. They celebrated Sundays in their Lutheran churches, the sermons and hymns sung in their language. His children attended American schools and were treated by American doctors. It was they that learned to speak our language. And they were proud and loyal Americans.

Trommel and his family didn't assimilate to what they found in America, America assimilated what they found in Trommel. From this illegal immigrant from Germany, America found the strong back and die-hard work ethic of the Teutonic peoples that spawned him. They found the warrior spirit that sustained him in an arduous sea voyage, self-incarcerated in the hold of a ship. And when America declared war on his homeland, they found him and his sons ready to take up arms and defend the ideal they came seeking. But they never assimilated.

"The times were different..."

Were they? I don't think they were. Nothing is new in what we are experiencing now. On 16 September 1920, a terrorist detonated a horse-drawn carriage laden with explosives (the first car bomb?) at the steps of the Morgan bank in the heart of Wall Street. 38 people were killed and 400 wounded. Anarchists were the Al Quaeda of their time. We fought an endless war against the Huns that began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Bosnian separatists until Hitler died in his bunker and the Russians marched through the streets of Berlin in the 1940's. And in both wars, Trommel and his sons were there. The "Sedition Act" had the post office reading our mail. Roosevelt had us imprisoning loyal Japanese citizens without the benefit of habeas corpus and Joe McCarthy had us looking under our beds for communists.

Tell me again how times are different? The names are strange, the tanks roll against an enemy without a uniform, but the fight hasn't changed. We're shadow-boxing with ghosts of our own creation, just as we did throughout the 20th century. Going to war with enemies we armed. Looking for an easy way to feel safe and secure in frightening times.

"At some point you have to turn off the tap or the melting pot overflows..."

"We're a nation of laws, no one should be allowed to break the law with impunity..."

Both of these are true. Both of these statements - if made in the interest of honest and earnest debate - would be perfectly viable positions to fortify and defend. But what really would the ramparts be built from save our own fears?

I look across this vast land and see a patchwork of fields and cities as diverse as the people who tilled their soil, planted the fence rows, built and worked the factories. I see a country that is the third most populous in the world but has the slowest rate of population growth of the top three. I see troubled storms on the horizon and I see a need for unity of purpose even if we retain our bickering, tumultuous political system. Real change is possible, real solutions are called for. It is possible that some of the solutions will be painful both for us and for the immigrants who are the grist in the millstones of our rhetoric. And some entrenched positions must be sacrificed in order to achieve victory, which will require real heroism, real leadership, and a real commitment from all sides to solving the problems. It will also require an understanding that no solution will be bloodless.

As most of you have probably surmised already, Trommel was my great-great-grandfather.

All of you come here periodically of your own free will.  Google tells me that a lot of you do.  Some of you read my various blogs week after week to see what I have to say. I have no idea why, but I try to make it worth your while. I hope to make you smile, or think, or think about smiling, and I hope that your lives are at least a little bit better for knowing me as I know mine is for knowing you.

Would your lives be better if Trommel had been sent back? The wars of the 20th century and the course of the industrial revolution would not have changed for the lack of one more German immigrant, but how would your life be different if Scott wasn't a part of it? The question sounds arrogant on my part, but what I really want to do is ask you to simply humanize the greater question that faces us.

If your life is indifferent to my presence, my ego can take that. If you would miss having me around, but still think we need a wall between us and Mexico, I can respect that too. I have never sought to surround myself with only friends that agree with me. If I did, I would be a lonely man indeed. And I never ask of others what I do not already demand of myself. I can't and won't dissuade you from an informed decision I disagree with, but I cannot abide an uninformed opinion created from ignorance and fear.

This debate will not end with this legislative session or the bill currently before congress. It has been going on since before the first brick was laid on Ellis island. But it should be civil and it should be informed. It should be the sort of debate our children's children are glad we undertook and thus it should encompass all sides, and it should be a challenge we are willing and able to overcome or no true republic are we. Pulling the covers over our heads will not benefit us. And so shall we fade as past empires have faded down through the mists of time, prey to their own arrogance, torn apart by internal strife, victims of their own refusal to meet the challenges of the changing times.

When I wrote this it was 2005. Nothing has changed.


  1. Very eloquently written my old friend. I to have skin in this game. My grandfather's younger sister when asked about her dad's naturalization papers stated, there aren't any he was never naturalized. We aren't sure but there is reason to believe he came from the French reagon of the old Basque country. Would explain my love of the mnts. and my penchant for hard labor. The funny thing about that is, or actually not so funny, most of that side of my family would love to dig a mass grave and start dumping brown people in it. Hipocracy indeed. I shead tears at the thought of this not only because of the sheer humanity or lack there of in this debate, but because I have one of those undocumented brown men from the other side of the border to thank for my eldest daughter. My wonderful 12yr. old that I am so proud of. I could have had a daughter of that age, but she would not be this one. My lovely Riley. She has an Irish name and spanish eyes and I love her just as much as if it were my blood running in those vains. And so I thank this man for giving me this delight. And to my family and all the others who would use derrogatory termanology for "Undocumented" workers in front of her at the Christmas table. Who would judge her or those like her based on the color of there skin, it's mallanine, the same chemical that turns our skin dark in the sun. They simply have more of it. That and the fact that they speak a different language one that I would like to learn by the way, are our only differences. On the inside we are all the same. We all want the same thing. Freedom to live, love, laugh, provide for our families and leave them with something better than we came into. The other interesting thing is most of the judgers profess to be Christians, to them I say judge not lest ye be judged.

    Jerome W. Merrill

  2. Thank you, Jerome. Your experience with your family underlines the need to a wider view that includes acknowledging that we're talking about people. This is not a news story about an abstract notion, this is about real people just like me, just like you, just like your daughter. We are all flesh and blood and ideas and ideals. We breathe the same air and walk the same land and to act toward another out of hatred and incivility and fear or any combination thereof is a crime against our own highest ideals.


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