Saturday, November 21, 2015

We're All Immigrants

Between 1755 and 1764, more than 80% of the Acadians living in the Maritime Provinces were expelled by Great Britain.

As persecutions go, it's penny ante.

Some of my ancestors were Acadians, French colonists in Canada's Maritime Provinces. They took Acadia, their name for the region, from Greek mythology: Arcadia (the "r" was dropped by the French), meaning "refuge," was an abundant land, a Utopia where all could live in peace, free from want. And in fact, the Acadians coexisted with the native Mi'kmaq tribal peoples, intermarrying with them and allying with them against frequent British invasions.

Over the course of Acadia's 150 year history, the power of the British Empire came to dominate. For the last fifty years of its existence, Acadia and its Mi'kmaq allies engaged in a series of small-scale wars with the Empire, culminating in the expulsion of 11,500 of the 14,100 Acadians still living in the region. Most were resettled in New England, though some traveled (via a crazily circuitous route, crossing the Atlantic twice) to Louisiana, where they became the Cajuns. In time, the British relented, permitting many to return to Canada. My ancestors, who had been relocated to New England, chose to stay there. That's how the Richards ended up in New Hampshire.

Measured against other historic diasporas, that of the Acadians was small and (if it's possible to apply this term to any mass expulsion) relatively humane. 11,500 is about enough population to get a town a couple of stop lights. And while any forced migration is, by its very nature, genocidal, the British appear to have practiced great restraint in this one, relocating most of the Acadians to other British colonies, and only doing so because the ongoing, Catholic-priest-led guerrilla warfare on British interests were proving impossible to quell through either diplomatic or military avenues. Add to this the decision of the empire to permit Acadians to return a few years after the expulsion, and this may have been the least vicious, shortest term persecution in the history of the western world.

And yet, there was a time when some of my ancestors were refugees. More importantly, all my American (and that includes those who came first to Canada) ancestors were immigrants--even the tiny fraction (and this is utter speculation at this point, as I just learned of it from the Wikipedia article on Acadia) who may have been Mi'kmaq. Even the "first peoples" or "native Americans" were, themselves, immigrants to this continent during the last Ice Age, traveling across the land bridge from Asia.

The point of this meditation on the roots of all Americans? That of all people on the Earth, we should be the very last to reject refugees and immigrants, or to threaten those who already live here with registration, interment, and deportation. 

But that is exactly what we have done, time and again, in knee jerk reaction to overseas trauma. The most recent case, of course, is the terrorist assault on Paris, which has led 26 governors and the House of Representatives to issue proclamations or pass legislation attempting to close our borders to Syrian refugees--people who are, themselves, fleeing the sort of violence that just took place in Paris, but on a much larger scale. Hundreds died in Paris; thousands are dying in Syria. The victims in Paris died in explosions and shootings; in Syria, chemical weapons have also been used by the government, while ISIS forces have subjected their victims to amputation, decapitation, and being burned alive.

Two passports found at the scenes of the crimes in Paris appear to connect two of the perpetrators to the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe in the last year, but there is also evidence that these documents were forged. Certainly the planning and execution of the attacks were carried out by French nationals.

In addition to the 26 governors insisting they will not permit Syrian refugees to enter their states--authority they do not have--the Republican candidates for the Presidency have launched a composition to see who can propose the most fascistic response. While all have called for turning away Syrian immigrants, some have sought to soften that proposal with a religious test for entry: Christian Syrians would be permitted, with vetting, to enter the country, while Muslims would be turned away. Others go as far as they can in the other direction, calling for added restrictions on American citizens of Arab descent. Donald Trump wants mosques closed and identity cards issued so that Arab-Americans can be tracked.

If this is sounding scarily familiar, there are ample reasons in recent history. Hitler registered and labeled Jews, closed and burned synagogues, and eventually shipped them off to internment camps, where they were slaughtered in the millions. During the same period of time, our own government interned Japanese-Americans, while largely ignoring the possibility that German- and Italian-Americans would've made far better spies. In the 1930s and 1950s, the U.S. engaged in campaigns of mass deportation of Mexican-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens. 

But xenophobia is far older than that. Throughout the nineteenth century, wave upon wave of immigrants entered America, fleeing poverty and persecution in their homelands. Those who looked white enough were met with suspicion, but over time were allowed to assimilate; those of Asian, Latin American, or African heritage had a much harder time of it. None had it easy.

Yet of all the nations on the planet, none has as gestalt an identity as the United States of America. We are a tossed salad of a country. Our popular music is a blend of so many influences that it ought to be a cacaphony; instead, it has merged those influences into a sound that is emulated around the world. The history-makers that populate our national story are a succession of ethnicities, genders and, now, orientations, each struggling up from rejection to acceptance and affirmation to emerge with a voice in policy and government. We are never more divided than at the hour of worship, and yet all these different expressions of faith have learned to tolerate and, in many cases, to affirm each other for our distinctions.

Immigration made us who we are. Welcoming refugees brings out the best in us. To reject the immigrant or the refugee is to turn out back on our story and our identity.

I'm proud to be able to say that Kate Brown, the governor of Oregon, has announced that this state will remain open to Syrian refugees. Of course, the office she holds was once held by a Syrian-American: Vic Atiyeh, a two-term Republican governor and one of Oregon's greatest statesman, was the son of immigrants, just another shining example of what makes this nation and its people so unique.

If we're fortunate, this xenophobic panic will fade quickly, and we can go back to recognizing that two of the GOP candidates are, themselves, sons of immigrants, and that this is what has always made this nation great.

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