Merlene Davis: Immigrants deserve better treatment

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 2, 2014 

Immigration Overload California

Protesters turned back three buses carrying 140 immigrants as they attempted to enter the U.S. Border Patrol station for processing on Tuesday at Murrieta, Calif.

DAVID BAUMAN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

As angry protesters shouted, "Go back home!" and "We don't want you here!" on Tuesday, three Homeland Security buses were turned away from entry to the U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta, Calif.

Onboard were about 140 undocumented children and some parents who had crossed our country's southern borders illegally.

The scene played out over and over again on TV news cycles, and I probably should have switched channels. But I couldn't.

When I closed my eyes and just listened to the anger, fears and frustrations of the protesters, I couldn't help but be taken back to the first busloads of Freedom Riders who wanted to change the laws of the land that supported segregated travel facilities in the South. Those riders also were stopped and angrily ordered to go back where they came from.

Many of us can look back now at those images during the summer of 1961 and shake our heads at the racial intolerance and injustices too many Americans supported. We cringe at the terror inflicted on many of the bus riders by people who had no desire to embrace equitable laws.

But when our eyes are turned toward the approximately 52,000 children who have crossed our southern borders illegally since October — many of whom sent here alone by parents who thought an unknown America was better than the conditions in their home countries — our concern is more for our wallets than for their well-being.

Were the people on those buses terrified Tuesday like the riders 53 years ago? Even those who don't speak English could tell that the protesters were not welcoming them.

In 1961, protesters argued that the riders brought it upon themselves. If the riders had just stayed home, protesters wouldn't have beaten them and burned their buses while insisting that the violence kept Southern cities safe.

In 2014, we can't seem to understand that parents sending children to a foreign country alone is equivalent to parents dropping a child from a burning building to waiting arms below. The unknown has to be better than the near-certainty of violence in their homeland.

To what lengths would the protesters go to protect their children from drug lords and violent gangs that threaten innocent people in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala?

We shouldn't portray ourselves to the world as saviors and peacekeepers if we don't want people to believe that.

"Send them back to their country," one protester said in California. "Send them back to where they come from."

Those are the same words spewed by Americans between 1845 and 1855, the Constitutional Rights Foundation said, when about 1.5 million Irish immigrants came to our shores and promptly strained the resources of Northern cities. Americans treated them badly, refused to hire them for meaningful work and isolated them in poor communities.

"As anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment grew, newspaper advertisements for jobs and housing routinely ended with the statement: "No Irish need apply," according to the foundation. The Know-Nothing Party, established in 1850 to prevent Irish immigration, was popular until the Civil War, when attention was turned to slavery and away from the Irish immigrants.

Jews, Italians and Poles also felt American backlash. They all managed to eventually blend in with other Americans, helping this country to become the great country it is.

Change invites fear. Fear welcomes misinformation. Misinformation divides us as people. Divided people can be seen as inhumane to some and nonhuman to others.

We can't continue as a nation to find new necks to stand on. We need immigration reform.

As a nation, we are better than what I've seen in my history and on TV Tuesday evening.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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