We Can Do Both: Welcome Immigrants and Be Safe

When I arrived—a couple of hours late mind you—to the Greensboro, North Carolina airport last April 8, around 45 children, teenagers, parents, and community leaders greeted me with signs, specially-made T-shirts, and song.

Other people in the waiting lounge looked interested, and perhaps as surprised as I did, to have such a welcome.

I was completely overwhelmed and honored. They were a group organized by Centro de Accion Latino in Greensboro, who had been awaiting my arrival for talks I was doing in the library, the community, some schools, and county jail. It was one of the few returns I’ve made to North Carolina since I spent ten weeks in early 2000 traveling from one end of the state to the other–from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks.

North Carolina, like many US Southern states, has had a tremendous rise in the Latino population this past decade—I read somewhere around 600 percent. These people include many migrants from Mexico, but also from Colombia, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other Latin American countries. Many are working in the lowest paid, most dangerous work available, including turkey and chicken farms, tobacco fields, service industries, factories, and textiles.

As in most states, tensions between these Spanish-speaking workers and English-speaking Americans, specifically African Americans but also Whites, became the catalyst behind my momentous residence: In two rental cars, I drove my way around this amazingly beautiful country to speak, read, and conduct workshops in some 21 events a week in universities, colleges, public and private schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers, migrant camps, churches, cafes, bookstores, and other venues.

Organized by North Carolina Word Wide (sponsored mostly by the state’s arts council), I spoke to Black, White, Asian, Native American (I now have good friends on the Cherokee rez), and Latino audiences, in English and Spanish.

It turned out to be one of the most healing efforts I’ve ever embarked on.

This April one of my talks/readings was in Greensboro’s Carolina Theater (one of those old ornate turn-of-the-century structures) to around 500 people. That particular visit capped a quick tour of the East Coast with visits to Amherst, MA and Syracuse, NY—both fantastic cities that treated me well and had me addressing many large and important audiences.

There is a growing interest in Chicano/Latino literature, but also in the rapid and extensive growth in the Latino population wherever I go. Here’s what I’ve found—and this after more than 25 years traveling and speaking around the country, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and Europe: Most people I’ve met are open, welcoming, and genuinely concerned about why Latinos are here and how we can best incorporate them in this country. I’m also aware that many are scared about our future, about security, about the sense that our resources are being spread too thin.

However, I’m convinced there are imaginative, encompassing, and significant ways to have a country free of terrorism AND a fair, equitable, and humane immigration policy.

The fact that millions mobilized around the country on May 1 for immigrant rights (and they were not only undocumented and documented immigrants, but many American citizens as well) is forcing us to re-examine this issue and find ways to resolve it in the interests of both Americans and non-citizens. This may seem impossible, or at least unlikely, but it’s timely and necessary.

We cannot continue to insist on policies and projects that isolate Americans from the rest of the world—this is the most indefensible position to have.

The vast majority of new immigrants without documents in the United States—reportedly close to 12 million people—are pro-America, willing to work hard, pay taxes, and even go to war (I don’t think they should, but that’s where they’re at).

Minutemen and other anti-undocumented people are cutting their own throats by trying to drive away a mostly peaceful, flag-waving, honest, hard-working people from our shores.

Fortunately, for the moment, their efforts are ineffective. The fact is we need these workers and they need us. It’s time to make this work for all of us; it's time for real imaginative work to make sure we can be safe and have a decent and dignified position around immigration.

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