Tear down the walls

A couple years ago, the Colorado History Museum mounted an exhibition of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs. They were, without exception, powerful, resonant images that both defined and illuminated their times. The flag raising at Iwo Jima, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe DiMaggio at the plate the visual heritage of every American, wordless paths to understanding our world.

But of the great photographs on display, one stuck in my mind. It was a picture of a young man riding on a boxcar, as the train moved slowly through a dense fog. The young man was a penniless Honduran migrant, seeking to get to the United States and join other family members who had, over the years, managed to make their way north.

The photograph, which accompanied a Los Angeles Times story, seemed to express deep and essential truths about the vast and continuing migration of Latinos to the United States. The young man was just a vague figure, shrouded in fog, but you sensed his fear, his uncertainty, his courage and his hope. His story is ours, or that of our parents, or our grandparents: restless, questing spirits who sought better lives for themselves and their children.

And that's why it was so dispiriting to listen to Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, speaking on National Public Radio in measured, pseudo-reasonable tones, propose to turn every undocumented immigrant in the country into an unemployed criminal. Tancredo, shamefully supported by many of his colleagues, wants to make an undocumented immigrant's mere presence here a felony, and to require employers to dismiss employees who can't prove that they're here legally.

To justify such draconian legislation, Tancredo and his fellow travelers of the anti-immigrant right trot out the usual arguments: They're de facto criminals who depress wages and take away jobs; they don't want to assimilate; they're just, in Tancredo's words, "swarming out on the streets, waving Mexican flags."

Time for a history lesson. Ever hear of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo? If you're like most Norteamericanos, nope. But if you're Mexican, the day that the treaty was signed, Feb. 2, 1848, is a day of national shame and humiliation. That's when the United States, animated by the so-called right of "Manifest Destiny," cashed in its invasion and conquest of Mexico by forcing the Mexican government to hand over California, Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming for $15 million!

Imagine if things were reversed, and we were the poor folks hoping to wade across the Arkansas River and go west to our historic lands. Think we'd care what the T'mas Tancredos of "Greater Mexico" said?

Motivation aside, I wonder how many of the anti-immigrant folks have ever met an undocumented migrant. Let me tell you about a friend of mine, whom we'll call Coraz'n.

Tough, fearless and smart as a whip, Coraz'n snuck across the border as a teenager 15 years ago. She made her way to Denver, found work, went to school and eventually graduated from Metro State with a degree in graphic arts. She worked for a variety of firms, then started her own business. Focused, fiercely ambitious and utterly reliable, she's built a successful enterprise. She sends money home, and has bought and restored houses in the city of her birth.

Rather than building walls between this country and our southern neighbors, we ought to be tearing them down. If it's important to build democracy in the Middle East, it's far more important to build prosperity in Mexico and a lot easier.

And, finally, let's not forget who we are. Writing in 1896, my great-grandfather described his grandfather's voyage to America from England in 1793: "In those days the voyages were long and dangerous ... storm after storm with heavy westerly gales, so prevalent in winter, retarded their progress ... they finally arrived, with their precious little baby, my father, after a passage of several months."

This great-heart country, a place of freedom and refuge, welcomed our ancestors. May it remain a light to all nations and not a gated community writ large, an armed island of affluence in a sea of poverty.



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