Even before we get to the abhorrent practice of separating families at the border, there’s been something about the whole immigration debate that hasn’t been sitting right with me. It started with the question of why the oldest DREAMers were born in the early 1980s. Millennials, if you would. This strongly implies that something major about US immigration policy changed in the late 1970s.
I think I’ve found the answer, and, although it’s not a straight line (history seldom is), do think it starts with a retired marine general named Leonard Chapman, who was nominated by Richard Nixon to head the Immigration and Naturalization Services in 1973, and who led the INS for four years. One sentence from his biography on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website stands out to me:
His appointment was confirmed with the unanimous consent of the U.S. Senate and he took the oath of office on November 29, 1973. Chapman served as Commissioner until May of 1977, overseeing a period of rapid growth in the INS’ staff and budget.
Chapman, by all accounts, was a good guy, trying to do the right thing. He made a point of visiting every branch office of the INS to talk to the people who worked there. This would be in stark contrast to his predecessor, Raymond Farrell, who as best as I could tell, was a prototypical bureaucrat who almost never left his desk.
It’s an interesting phenomenon when you talk to people. A lot of people. It gets hard to tell when they espouse less-than-moral or ethical opinions. This was illustrated to me by an episode of the 1990s TV series Quantum Leap. For those unfamiliar with that series, it was about a scientist named Sam Beckett, who involved himself in a time traveling experiment and wound up “leaping” from one place to the next, replacing someone temporarily until he could alter the course of their personal history.
In this particular episode, he leapt into the middle of a ceremony where the person he replaced was formally inducted into the Ku Klux Klan, by his father. In a voiceover explanation of his surroundings, Dr. Beckett observed that, despite their racism and hatred, they were people, too, with many of the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. And, if you look away from the obviously repugnant views they hold, they could even be thought of as “nice” (at least in other parts of their day to day lives).
It’s enough to make you wonder about what Chapman heard when he talked to INS staff, as he called for an increased budget. Undoubtedly, he heard that a lot of people were crossing over the border from Mexico into the US, and that maybe we need to stop, or at least slow, the flow of migrants. What he might not have heard — because it wasn’t tracked the same way — is how often those migrants returned to Mexico.
60s folksinger Phil Ochs gave us a brief glimpse into the pre-Chapman world with his song Bracero. (The title means “laborer” in Spanish and is derived from the Spanish word for “arm”, which is brazo…) If you listen to this song, your first reaction would be to ask what’s changed in the past half century since it came out. Here are my thoughts:
- The braceros are more likely called “illegal” or “undocumented immigrants” now
- Their ability to return home is harder and significantly more dangerous due to bigger fences and stricter border enforcement
- The INS is now known as ICE and has become more military-like (as have many police departments)
I don’t know exactly what General Chapman heard when he spoke to the border patrol agents on his tour of his agency. Surely he heard tales of a porous border through which Mexicans moved freely and without regard for the official immigration rules. Maybe they’re lazy, sleeping all the time. Maybe they were sending too much money back home to Mexico, rather than spending it here in the states. Maybe they were committing other crimes, like theft, or rape, or something. If you don’t know what you’re listening for, you might not hear the racism.
Resentment of immigrants in any country is nothing new. It’s a change to the landscape that those already present have no control over and can be uncomfortable. How many times do we have to hear “they don’t talk like us” or “they don’t hold the same values we do”? It is, by its very nature, a form of xenophobia.
The ICE agents were the only government employees who overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in his election bid in 2016. This isn’t a surprise. He promised he’d give their agency more money and more help. They’re not necessarily bad people themselves, but when your job is to stop people from doing something, you want help stopping people from doing something. That those people happen to have brown skin is, well, a product of dumb luck in the way things played out. But rules are rules.
And those rules likely came about because a dedicated military man talked to people. But only the people who monitored people crossing the border without talking to the people who actually crossed the border.
The DREAMers only have that name because the rules changed later.
And now we can see the ICE agents gaining power as Trump promised. There are too many forced detentions and no place to put all of the people. So now we’re separating parents from their crying children.
General Chapman may have had good intentions with the way he helmed INS. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted it would come to this. This is not what America is or stands for.
When a building is in a bad enough state of disrepair, the only way to improve it is to tear it down and start over. We need to do that with American immigration policy. Start over, completely fresh.
And as soon as humanly possible. Because we’re acting inhumanely.