Why I’m not proud to be an American

I was born here, so I am not proud to be an American, but I am proud of many others who chose to become Americans and did the work to do so.

When, as a schoolchild, I first learned of the population of the United States and the world as a whole, I wondered how it was that I was so lucky to have been born here. In 1960, the United States (181 million) had about 6 percent of the world population (over 3 billion). I tried to envision myself in other less fortunate circumstances, but this was the only life I knew.

In 1984, Lee Greenwood wrote and sang the song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which included the line “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Even though I love the song, whenever I hear it I think, “No, I am not proud to be an American. I am happy to be an American; I am fortunate to be an American.” But it is not something I earned or accomplished. It was just the luck of the draw. People who came here and worked for and earned their citizenship could rightly be proud of their accomplishment, and also happy to reap the benefits of citizenship.

Over the years, I have met, worked with, and become friends with many immigrants, most of whom became citizens. Some came here as refugees who had escaped Eastern Europe communist dictatorship. Some were from families that had escaped China in 1949 when Mao’s army took over the country. One escaped as a child at the fall of Saigon. Some came as students, or because there was an opportunity for work here. Some came from Europe, some from Africa, some from Southeast Asia some from Canada, and some came from Mexico, Central America or South America.

Some were Christian, some Jews, some Muslim, some Baha’i, some Hindu, some agnostic or atheist. All were happy to be here. For those who came from oppression, I sometimes ask whether, if circumstances were different, would they prefer to be back “home.” I ask this, because I always have the feeling that people have an inborn desire for their homeland. I can’t recall any wanting to leave, although some express a desire to visit relatives or see their place of origin.

The stories are all unique, sometimes sad or bittersweet. A close grad-school friend whose family had escaped China to Taiwan when he was four, went back to visit thirty-some years later after gaining citizenship here. He found out that he had an older sister his parents had left behind with relatives. They had never mentioned her. A couple that escaped Poland about 1980, had to get out separately, one at a time, and left behind a year-old daughter. Fortunately they were able to get her out after about a year.

An Armenian couple from Iran was fortunate to be working here before the Ayatollah took over. Another friend from Iran was a student in the U.S. at the time. He happened to be visiting there at the time of the takeover. An older brother of his was a police chief and was able to get him on a plane back to the U.S. He says other students were not so lucky. They were told they were welcome to come back. Those that did were never heard from again.

There were two co-workers and friends from work who were from Egypt. One I have come to know closely. He got his doctorate degree in Moscow before coming here. He knows more about American History than probably 99 percent of people born here. And if you ever think that all Muslims are evil, you should meet him. He is one of the gentlest and most reasonable people I know (and yes, we do talk about God, religion, and politics).

These and many more have reason to be proud to be Americans. And I am proud of them – ­­and proud to be their friend.

The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty says it:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


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Island of Attainment

Kenneth Piper, August 21, 2014

II. The larger the island of attainment, the longer the coastline of desire – Procter Thomson.

This one works on so many levels and for so many subjects. Let’s consider the island of the United States of America.

The conservatives think that the answer is simple – build a bigger wall. Make the borders impenetrable, put more agents on the border – but don’t let that bust the budget. And make it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

Liberals want to let those that are here stay. Of course, the liberal politicians are counting on them to be supporters down the road. And those newcomers will be happy to take the low-pay menial jobs that no one else wants.

The reality is that there is no way to make the border impenetrable. Think of it like a permeable membrane in a science experiment or a reverse osmosis water filter. If the desire to get through is high enough, they will find a way. So, why do they come?

A friend of mine used to work at a factory in Oxnard that hired undocumented workers. There was a man who had been there 18 years, and in all that time had not seen his wife or children. He was happy to know that the money he was making was allowing his children to attend good schools in Mexico. But, he could not go back, because he would not be able to come in again and he could not make enough money in Mexico. He was a virtual slave here, because the employer knew he was an illegal, so he would not quit, no matter the poor salary or working conditions. He was getting old and his productivity had dropped off. My friend’s boss told him he needed to fire the man. He would not do it, and he quit rather than do it. They had no care for the workers, just wanted them for cheap labor.

My friend says, if a his family were hungry, he would do anything to feed them. If he can’t get work, there is a ready market here for drugs – dangerous, but his family is hungry. Sure, the drug lords are rich, but the drug runners are like all the others – desperate.

I work with some people from Iran. They came over in the 1970’s, one for college, another for a job opportunity. But when the Ayatollah took over, they could not go back. The Ayatollah put out the word to all Iranians – come back, we welcome you, we need you and the skills that you have learned. But those who went back were never seen again, never even got out of the airport upon their arrival.

So they come for opportunity, for freedom, for safety from persecution – the same things that have brought immigrants throughout our history. But now the door is closed, the ship is full. If we let them in, we will surely sink. But in they come, through that permeable membrane, and all the money we throw at it will still not make it hold back the throngs.

A different perspective, recalling the permeable membrane of science experiments: What does it take to prevent movement through that membrane? If conditions are the same on both sides, there is no net movement through the membrane. There is the occasional molecular passage, but equal in both directions. The greater the difference on the opposite sides, the greater is the movement through the membrane.

So back to the border – what can we do? Should we keep throwing money at making the barrier more impenetrable? Should we just let them all through? Should we make our living conditions and employment prospects the same as in Mexico.

I like to think that most people would rather stay where it is home, if there is not something driving them away. I have known many people from other countries, and I often ask them whether that is true for them. They have come for many different reasons, and it is not an easy question to answer. But those reasons are always the same as for generations before – something at home made them leave. If I am right, then maybe we should be helping to make conditions better in those emigrant nations.

Our government has sent lots of money to foreign governments, to buy their friendship. But, other than programs like the Peace Corps or Red Cross where we help build something or deliver food, most of the money goes to the leaders. Whether to make them richer, or buy more weapons, that money is wasted. I know this is not a popular idea right now when our own joblessness is high, but outsourcing of labor makes a lot of sense, at least if done humanely. I believe the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is still in effect.

So, how about if we stop badmouthing companies that build factories in Mexico or other places where conditions are driving the people out. After a string of American made water heaters that leaked before the warranty was out (or even when new) I am happy with my American-brand, but Mexican-made water heater. And Saturn automobiles were recently made in Mexico, until the federal bailout required GM to abandon Saturn. The key is to avoid exploiting those people for our own selfish desires. Corporate responsibility and, lacking that, public awareness and public pressure can make the difference. For example, when people became aware of the conditions faced by Chinese workers making Apple products, Apple got involved to try to make things better.

I recently read that 2/3 of the 5 ½ million jobs that President Obama bragged about creating were taken by immigrants; most of those were newly arrived. And the new Oakland Bay Bridge was built by a Chinese company. Neither of these is helping solve the unemployment problem. I would rather see companies investing in other countries than giving tax dollars to the leaders of those countries to buy influence.

What do you think?