Watching the snarling denizens (I try to avoid the word citizen) of Murietta, California, embarrass my state and my country before the world with their hypocritical Americanism and twisted Christianity as they assemble with their ugly signs to ward off those insurgent huddles masses of Central American political refugee children is enough to make one puke. The exclusively white faces betray the fact that they themselves are descendants of immigrants, making them less worthy of territorial claim than those frightened kids on the buses. It’s just some good ole immigration hypocrisy, American style. So, I have reprised another piece from the archives [A repreise of 76.1 from 3.5.2012] See also, on immigration, 31.8, and 42.7.
If we begin with the proposition that “immigrants” is only a relevant term when there is a pre-existing, indigenous population, then anyone arriving in the Americas after the settlement of its various (what we now call) “Native Americans” is an immigrant. The Vikings, Spanish and Portuguese, the Pilgrims, and anyone also follow them, they’re all immigrants. But it seems they all like to invoke the “rights of prior arrival” in setting themselves one above the other and self-bestowing a certain privilege status.
It is correct to say that that we are indeed a nation almost completely of immigrants. It is also correct to say that there is an incredible amount of bullshit flung about on the subject of immigration. (I of course will not be adding to that heap.) Currently, immigration is very much a part the political discourse and employed as a litmus test as to whether one is a legitimate “American” somewhat in the same manner that Barack Obama’s pedigree is used by some to deny him that status.
Most of us know the history of the earlier waves of immigration––the Dutch, the Irish, Italians, the Jews, etc.––the stories about how the Irish dug canals, my Italian grandfather dug subways New York, the Chinese dug through mountains and prairies to lay the railroads, lots of digging. These were stories were built around Emma Lazarus’s poem associated with the Statue of Liberty (she should have written “give me your tired, your poor, your guys with picks and shovels . . . .”) They were the positive stories, but they were always matched by the negatives, usually negatives associated with ethnic stereotypes, mistrust of religions and foreign tongues, competition over neighborhood space, and low-wage jobs. It could get nasty, as when Japanese-Americans were forcibly interred during World War II (but apparently German-Americans and Italian-Americans failed to meet the yellow pigmentation test for that privilege).
Our economic system, built on the private ownership of land and capital, has always been about exploitation. And the immigrants that at various times and places filled labor need for that process were merely an exploitable commodity that we allowed into the country not so much at the urging of the noble phrases of Lazarus’s poem, but according to the productive needs of our industry and infrastructure, and the eventual consumption provided by that same workforce. Today of course with the higher speed and the lower-cost of the transportation of material inputs and finished goods, it is possible to maintain large productive forces of what are essentially “external” immigrant populations. Those we do not have to educate or provide healthcare and, indeed, that is very much an aspect of their attractiveness that adds to the profitability of their exploitation.
One of the central themes of the immigration debate in America today revolves around the issue of jobs. On one side we have the anti-immigrationists contending that jobs are taken away from native born citizens by immigrants willing to take lower pay. The argument is rebutted with the contention that immigrants are actually taking jobs that native born Americans refuse to do. Most Americans would likely eschew long hours of stoop labor or the stinking privilege of deconstructing chickens and pigs day after day at almost any wages. Many of us would rather blame the immigrant forced to take wages at any level in order to survive than to hold corporations that pocket wage savings to account.
But when it comes to the other end of the labor force we are curiously silent. Corporations that “import” scientists and engineers and fields like bioengineering and IT from India, China, and even countries in the Middle East, do not receive the same complaint when American jobs are taken. Again, the driving consideration is corporate profitability. I focus upon exploitation and profitability because those concerns seem to trump all others when the advantage lies with our political and economic interests. The irony of our immigration policies is that too many of us prefer that the growth of our corporate investments allow us to purchase at the lowest possible cost the services of gardeners, house cleaners, and maids at one end, and healthcare and technology at the other.
Few other American public policy behaviors ooze hypocrisy like immigration does. Let’s put in for the record, although it is not the point of this essay, the forced immigration policy of American slavery, often practiced by many of those who subscribed a venerable document that announced that “all men are created equal.” But I would like to turn to a curious and hypocritical American immigration policy that has received far less attention.
In the late 1930s and into the 1940s many European Jews were attempting to escape what they correctly anticipated might be fate of nearly 6,000,000 of their coreligionists. It would be safe to say that America was not the most welcoming nation, especially in view of being overwhelmingly Christian and with the residual enmity built around that old “Christ killer” story, and the fact that there were boatloads of Jews that were refused entry*. This however did not apply to almost famous Jews of all time, Albert Einstein, who was welcomed, celebrated, and given a post at Princeton.** No doubt his familiarity with E=mc2 had more to do with it than his ethnicity or faith.
But Einstein wasn’t the only exceptional Jewish immigrant at the time. The American government was also welcoming to the scientific genius of several other refugees from the Nazi incursion into Eastern Europe. Four of them were physicists, names we can, or should be able to, recognize: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, were instrumental in splitting atom and played major roles in the Manhattan Projects that created the atomic bombs (under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer, the son of Jewish immigrants) that helped end WWII. Wigner was awarded a Noble Prize. Brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, who should have received one as well, developed game theory that influenced many fields, and is regarded as he father of the computer. They might have been captured by the Nazis, who they knew were intent on developing their own atomic weapon.
As we well know the atomic bomb was employed to hasten the end of the war against Japan, not Germany. How the Germans, had they succeeded in developing the bomb themselves, would have employed it, and against whom, must be left historical speculation. But that they had made great advances in the development of a vehicle that remains to today the vehicle of choice, brings us to another irony of American immigration practice.
Following the Nazi surrender both the Americans and Soviets rushed headlong to gather their respective shares of German rocket scientists. The subsequent Cold War missile standoff between the US and the USSR is grim testimony to those efforts. So also are their respective space programs. So while the US was trying and executing various Nazis they were also importing others who might be of use militarily and otherwise. One of these was Werner von Braun.
A former member of the Nazi party, commissioned Sturmbannführer of the SS and decorated Nazi war hero, von Braun in his 20s and early 30s, von Braun was the central figure in Germany’s rocket development program, responsible for the design and realization of the V-2 combat rocket during World War II. After the war, he and some of his rocket team were brought the U.S. as part of the then-secret “Operation Paperclip.” With the assistance of false employment and political biographies Von Braun and his team worked on the US Army intermediate range ballistic missile program before his group was assimilated by NASA, under which he served as director of the newly formed Marshall Space Flight Center and as the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, the rocket that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon. In 1975 the former Nazi was awarded National Medal of Science.***
Were it fiction were it fiction and not history that wrote a bizarre plot in which Jewish scientists run out of Europe by Nazis end up inventing atomic warheads that ride on missiles developed by Nazi scientists each exploited in their way by a country that mythologizes its history of immigration, it would not be a credible story. When in doubt it is well to remember that economic in military expediency trump lofty principles every time.
©2012, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.16.2014)