By Walter Mills
We’re not an especially multicultural group out here in the valley. Now and then we’ll have an exchange student at the high school who is visiting from another country, and the Amish are like a permanently foreign society in our midst, but on my daughter’s softball team there are no black or brown faces, no accents.
That makes the recent wave of immigration demonstrations, the boycotts and the marches through the downtowns of major cities hard to grasp. We don’t have migrant farm workers picking our crops in this part of Pennsylvania, though I've seen small groups of Latino men on the streets of Chambersburg early in the morning, waiting to be picked up to work in the orchards in the southern part of the state.
To put a real face to the marchers and protesters, I have to go back to the 1980s when I worked in a hotel in downtown San Francisco. That little hotel was like a mini-United Nations, representing a dozen foreign languages and cultures. I could walk in the front door and be greeted by a French or Irish bellman; stop at the front desk where the manager was from the Philippines and the telephone operator was native Hawaiian; go downstairs to punch in and speak to housekeepers from Central America and Mexico. The owners were Japanese and the general manager was Mexican. I was one of the rare, native-born US citizens on the staff.
This was before multiculturalism became a buzz word with its touchy-feely overtones, and its checklist cooked up by the human resources department. We didn't spend a lot of time swapping recipes or doing diversity workshops. We all just lived in a city that was itself a giant workshop, and people who were intolerant of different cultures did not fare well.
But over time, I did get to know some of the back story of the people I worked with every day. One of the housemen, Germai, was a thin, balding, dark-skinned man in his early thirties. He was so mild-mannered and shy that even some of the meeker housekeepers tended to boss him around. I knew he was from Eritrea, a war-scarred country in northeast Africa, but I was surprised to learn that for fifteen years he had been a soldier there, living in the hills or on the battlefield, before he threw away his rifle and somehow escaped to America.
I also got to know another refugee from civil war, Anna, a mother of three from El Salvador where the famous US-supported Contras were killing suspected left-wing sympathizers. She never said that she was in the country illegally, but she always talked to me in a guarded voice and acted as though people were watching her. Anna was in her late twenties and having a hard time of it on a housekeeper's salary, with three children and a husband who was either dead or fighting the Contras. But like Germai, she was tougher than she appeared and didn't ask for anything she hadn't earned.
The essayist Eliot Weinberger writes that it is hard to underestimate America’s near total ignorance of the rest of the world. He says, “Outside of certain nomadic tribes in the rain forests and deserts, there is no more insular society on earth.” For a country made up almost entirely of immigrants, and fairly recent immigrants by historical standards, our lack of interest in the rest of the world is baffling.
In every wealthy modern country the birthrate is falling and the population is growing gray. If we want our economy to prosper, we will need those immigrants, both the poor and the highly trained who fill the graduate schools of our universities.
Building a wall across our southern border is just more of the rhetoric of fear that we hear each time a politician's poll numbers fall too low. We will never be attacked by poor Mexicans or Eritreans who are coming here to find work and a better life. In a country grown insular and fearful, we need their immigrant spirit.
(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2006 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide.