I was born in what the local rulers represented to be the sovereign state of Oklahoma. This circumstance was not my fault. I suppose I might blame my parents, but they had a similar excuse, my father having been born in the same jurisdiction and my mother having been brought there as an infant. In any event, by virtue of my birthplace, I became a citizen of that state and, as such, I bore a heavy burden of misfortune.
Our part of Oklahoma, you see, was not exactly at the cutting edge of economic and social development in those days. Good jobs were not easy to find, and even a resourceful workingman who was willing to labor long and hard, as my father was, could not earn much. Many of the schools were primitive. When I began the first grade, in 1950, the school comprised about fifty students in grades 1—8. My first-grade class met in a little shack along with the second-grade class, while the rest of the students met in a larger, one-room building with a removable divider in the middle of the room. With the divider put in place, grades 3—5 met on one side of it, grades 6—8 on the other side. Three teachers made up the entire staff, except for the cook, who happened to be my mom. I won’t say that I couldn’t possibly have remained in that environment and still become an astronaut. Maybe I could have. But the odds did not look promising.
For a time during the war, when I was an infant, my father had taken the family to Portland, Oregon, where he worked in one of Kaiser’s shipyards as a welder until the war ended. So he had tasted the sweet nectar of West Coast wages. Of course, after the war, such elevated wages were no longer available for the asking, yet West Coast wages still stood well above those in Oklahoma, as my father knew from the accounts of friends who had migrated to California earlier and sent back glowing reports.
In 1951, a old friend of my father’s who worked on a ranch near Mendota, California, a dusty little town 35 miles west of Fresno, arranged for the ranch owner to hire my father and my older brother as tractor drivers during the summer — my father had several months of accumulated vacation time. So the family packed a few of our belongings and headed west on Route 66, as so many Okies before us had done during the previous twenty years.
Reaching our destination at the Encher Ranch, we moved into a small living area walled off at the end of a larger structure built originally as a bunkhouse for immigrant Japanese workers before the war. There was no extra charge for the outdoor toilets and showers. In those days, such labor camps dotted the San Joaquin Valley thickly, housing not only the migrant Okies, Texans, and other wretched refuse of the Dust Bowl, but also an abundance of migrant Mexicans. A sprinkling of Italians, Portuguese, Basque, Chinese, and Japanese spiced the area’s population.
At the end of the summer, my father’s work having proved more than satisfactory to the employer, and the wages more than satisfactory to my father, we returned briefly to Oklahoma, arranged for the shipment of our household belongings, such as they were, and moved back to California permanently.
Lest you wonder about the point of this mundane little narrative, I hasten to emphasize that my father had done something quite remarkable: he had left the sovereign state of Oklahoma, crossed the sovereign states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and entered into and established permanent residence in the sovereign state of California, all without the permission of any of the rulers of these states. Imagine that!
Ho-hum, you say; any American can do the same whenever he wants. Well, yes, that’s true. But Americans can do so only because the sovereign states that belong to the federal umbrella state known as the United States of America have worked out a system of essentially unimpeded cross-border passages, and their laws recognize that in general anyone with permission from the U.S. authorities to be in the United States may move freely within the constituent states of the union. No law forbade my father to leave Oklahoma without approval by the Oklahoma government, and no law forbade him to enter California without approval by the California government. (Earlier, in 1937, California did enact a statute that became known as the “anti-Okie law,” aimed at preventing certain Americans from entering the state, but the law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941 in Edwards v. California [314 U.S. 160].)
Many of the Mexican children with whom I grew up might have told a tale similar to mine. The only difference would have been that for them, the origin of their migration to California happened to be not one of the states of the United States of America, commonly known as America, but one of the states of the United Mexican States, commonly known as Mexico. Was this difference important? If so, why? Do the lines that government officials draw on maps sever the heart of humanity?
It may not be entirely beside the point to note that the area in which my family settled in 1951 had previously been part of Mexico, from the time of Mexico’s independence until its leaders were coerced into signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended what the Mexicans aptly call la Intervención Norteamericana (the War of North American Invasion). As the spoils of this war, the U.S. government snatched not only the whole of present-day California, but also all of present-day Nevada and Utah, most of present-day Arizona, and substantial parts of present-day New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Recall this history the next time you hear someone talking about the current Mexican “invasion” of the United States. If only the Americans under General Winfield Scott’s command in 1847 had invaded Vera Cruz to pick lettuce, rather than to kill the local people.
To return to my story, however, the undeserved misfortunate that many of my childhood comrades suffered sprang from the simple, morally irrelevant fact that the government officials who ruled the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, and others included in the thirty-one states of the Mexican union had not entered into the same agreement that the government officials who ruled Oklahoma, Texas, California, and others included in the (then) forty-eight states of the United States of America had made with regard to state border crossings.
From time to time, people of my acquaintance were rounded up and deported, as if they were criminals. What was their crime? Picking cotton? If so, then I was guilty, too, because when I was growing up, many of the ranchers had yet to switch from Okies and Mexicans to mechanical pickers, and by the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I could fill a 12-foot sack and, having weighed my pickings, haul it up the ladder like a man to empty its contents into the cotton trailer.
So far as I was ever aware, the deportations pleased nobody: neither the unlucky individuals wrenched from their homes and places of employment; nor the ranchers and other business owners who readily hired these hardworking people; nor the rest of us, whose relations with the Mexicans were generally cooperative and cordial. La Migra — the immigration officers — was like a natural disaster. These obnoxious state functionaries descended on the community like a plague or a swarm of locusts, benefiting no one, yet collecting salaries at public expense for their mischief. I knew one young man who was deported several times, and each time he returned after a short while. He took special offense at these costly disruptions of his life because, in fact, he had been born in California, but he lacked official documentation of his birthplace.
If you are not familiar with immigration enforcement, here’s an introduction, for which we are indebted to Pat Mora, whose poem “La Migra” begins:
Let’s play La Migra I’ll be the Border Patrol. You be the Mexican maid. I get the badge and sunglasses. You can hide and run, but you can’t get away because I have a jeep. I can take you wherever I want, but don’t ask questions because I don’t speak Spanish. I can touch you wherever I want but don’t complain too much because I’ve got boots and kick — if I have to, and I have handcuffs. Oh, and a gun. Get ready, get set, run.
Anti-immigrationists often say that the Mexicans come here only to go on welfare. Aside from this declaration’s manifest misrepresentation of the truth, one wonders why the obvious remedy for this alleged problem does not occur to them: get rid of welfare — after all, nobody, regardless of his place of birth, has a just right to live at other people’s coerced expense.
Others claim that the “illegals” crowd the public schools and hospitals, sucking resources away from the taxpayers. If so, then the answer is the same: get the government out of the business of schooling and healing; it ought never to have gone there in the first place.
Some Americans clothe their hatred with the charge that the foreigners who come here commit crimes, such as selling drugs and conducting businesses without a license. Of course, drug peddling and working without a government license ought never to have been criminalized in the first place, for anybody, because these acts violate no one’s just rights. If people are worried about real crimes, such as robbery and murder, they need to recall that laws against these crimes already exist, and no special “preemptive war” against potential immigrant offenders can be justified, any more than I can justify nuking Philadelphia today on the strength of my absolute conviction that some residents of that city will commit serious crimes tomorrow.
I attended public schools in California from the second grade until my graduation from high school, and later, after a year at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, I attended institutions of public higher education there, graduating from San Francisco State College in 1965 and then attending the University of California at Santa Barbara for a year of graduate study before going on to greener pastures at Johns Hopkins (a so-called private university whose entanglements with the Pentagon you’d best not look into, if you wish to retain your faith in “private” universities).
Whether my father paid any more in taxes to the state of California, its subsidiary governments, and the school district than our Mexican neighbors paid I greatly doubt. Everybody, regardless of his birthplace or documentation, paid excise, gasoline, and general sales taxes whenever he made certain purchases. Everybody, regardless of his birthplace or documentation, paid the property tax (indirectly) whenever he rented a house or apartment. Everybody, regardless of his birthplace or documentation, paid fees for driver’s licenses, hunting licenses, bridge tolls, and other privileges the state graciously permitted the peasantry to enjoy for a price.
Of course, because my father never earned an enormous salary, he might well have paid less in taxes than the cost of my education in the California schools; who knows? If so, should I have been kicked out of the state and deported — sent, as they say, “back where [I] came from”? Was my family sponging off the longsuffering taxpayers of California any less than the Mexican family down the road from us? And what difference does it make where the sponger comes from? Isn’t the sponging itself the heart of the matter? Do the self-styled “Minutemen” who undertook recently to “secure the border” with Mexico swat only the mosquitos that have hatched on the south side of the Rio Grande?
If we must choose — and indeed we must — between the world’s most powerful and aggressive state, on the one hand, and a man who wishes to move to Yakima to support his family by picking apples, on the other hand, which side does human decency dictate that we choose? Unfortunately, in this situation, it is all too plain that many Americans are choosing to worship the state and to make a fetish of the borders it has established by patently unjust means. As for this wandering Okie, I’d sooner prostrate myself before a golden calf.