The people of the United States, with the notable exception of Native Americans, came to this country sometime since the seventeenth century. Some came, as my ancestors did, to avoid religious persecution, others came for a chance for a new prosperous life, while others tragically came here against their will. Yet, all of these people were immigrants. The poem “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 about the Statue of Liberty, describes the kind of nation many hoped to find. One that says “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-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” While some of those arriving were able to come to established communities and join family members, others were not so fortunate. This edition of The History Rhyme examines two cases of the latter type of immigrants – those who come with nothing – to see how different political and economic conditions within the United Sates can affect the receptiveness of this new Colossus.
Despite the eloquent words from Ms. Lazarus, the United States has not always been so eager to live out the sentiment of that poem. American history is littered with a variety of rules, regulations, and quotas that were designed to limit who could come to America and when. A notable examples of this was the quota system were set by the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited yearly immigration for an ethnic group to the United States to 2% of that group’s population in the U.S. in 1890. This had tragic consequences leading up to World War II since it severely limited the number of people who could enter the United States from Southern and Eastern Europe. Even after that point, the pace of legal immigration has been slow, at best. Since the 1980s, the rate of illegal immigration has increased greatly, especially across the porous southern border with Mexico, resulting in millions of illegal immigrants residing in the United States. From this, the issue of immigration reform has become a major political issue that has been inflamed by the increasingly partisan culture. There are numerous stories in the press and in blogs that argue that the immigration issue is a “winner for [insert party here].” Although this does help address the underlying issues behind the rise of illegal immigration (e.g. the lack of stability in Mexico and Central America, the inability of American employers to find legal Americans to take their demanding, low paying jobs, etc.), it does make good fodder for political attack ads and bombastic political pundits.
The latest chapter in the immigration saga concerns the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children at the US/Mexico border since October 2013. As with most crises these days, the first question that is asked in America is not “what is to be done” but rather “who is to be blamed.” It is not surprising that the political right blames President Obama for what Senator Rand Paul (R-TN) calls as “humanitarian nightmare.” It is also not surprising that some like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has called for Obama’s impeachment. More surprising is that the President is also being criticized by members of his own party for what has been perceived as a lack of decisive action by the nation’s leader. As of late July 2014, there are still no answers to this crisis in sight.
While the blame game is played at the highest levels, the question of “what is to be done?” still remains – especially with an overwhelming number of immigrant children needing care. One answer was to move children to camps in the states bordering Mexico. In some cases, this has encountered local opposition. The most notorious example was when a group of protesters confronted a bus filled with children in Murrieta, California on July 4, 2014, with people in the crowd carrying signs such as the ones that read “Stop Rewarding Start Deporting” and “Send Them Back With Birth Control.” In addition, the option of sending children to various states was considered, but this met with resistance from the governors of those states. One of the governors who said he would not accept any of the children was Terry Branstad of Iowa. In a July 15, 2014 story in the Des Moines Register, Governor Branstad explained why he did not want children sent to Iowa when he stated “I do want empathy for these kids, but I do not want to send the signal to send these children to America illegally.” The response to the governor’s stance has followed generally party lines. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) reacted by saying “I am disappointed that Gov. Branstad has stated that we somehow shouldn’t take these kids. Why not? Why can’t we help protect these kids and open up our arms to them, help them here to keep them safe and give them every reasonable opportunity to apply for asylum?” On July 18, 2014, the editors of the Des Moines Register chastised the governor for for abandoning Iowa’s long history of helping those in need. At the same time, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) focused his energies on passing a bill that would require the Federal government to inform states that children were being sent to the various states This arose after stories emerged that the Federal agencies were sending children to states such as Iowa without informing local officials.
This edition of The History Rhyme is concerned with this issue is that the response of the Iowa governor brought to my mind (as a lifelong Iowa resident) and to the mind of others like Senator Harkin a very different response to the plight of desperate people needing help of an earlier Republican governor of Iowa, Robert D. Ray (governor 1969-83). In the aftermath of the fall of the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in April 1975, a “humanitarian crisis” much more serious than the one encountered recently at the Mexican border emerged. Within months, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled to overcrowded and under-supplied camps in neighboring countries such as Thailand. Included in that total were over 1,000 Tai Dam people who had been refugees in Laos since the 1950s when they had fled North Vietnam to escape the Communist government. With the takeover of Laos in 1975 by the Communist Pathet Lao, the Tai Dam were forced to flee again to the camps in Thailand. Arthur Crisfield, a former United States employee in Laos who had worked with the Tai Dam, wrote 30 United States governors asking for a place for these refugees. President Gerald Ford also asked the governors for help. Not only did governor Ray feel that helping these people was “the right thing to do,” so also thought it important to make sure that the Tai Dam were not separated. The governor asked President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to allow all the Tai Dam to be resettled together into Iowa. In Iowa, Ray ensured that the support the state gave emphasized work over welfare, because he felt that was the best way to ensure that their community would remain cohesive in the values and cultural identity they had fought so hard and so long to maintain. Ray later explained his views on the crisis by saying “I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die.’ We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation… Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” (see NOTE 1). Because of his efforts, the largest Tai Dam population outside of Southeast Asia is in Iowa.
In 1979 (when Terry Branstad was his Lieutenant Governor), Ray repeated his efforts to help Vietnamese refugees after he viewed a heart-wrenching report by Ed Bradley on the plight of the “boat people” – those fleeing Vietnam in rickety boats on perilous journeys to Malaysia (see NOTE 2). Ray led the relief effort by lobbying President Jimmy Carter to act, touring a camp in Thailand, speaking before the National Governors Association Meeting to promote acceptance of the refugees, and urging the people of Iowa to welcome more refugees into their communities. With the help of his efforts, 168,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the United States and in 1980 the Federal refugee law was rewritten to ensure that there was a permanent and standardized process for accepting refugees.
It might be enough to stop this History Rhyme at this point and make comparisons between the actions of Governors Ray and Branstad. On the surface it seems that there are similarities and differences between the two cases. Both are circumstances of helpless people in need of aid so it would be easy to look poorly on the resistance of Governor Branstad to taking in children. However, there are significant differences between the two cases. In the case of the Vietnamese, the choice of how America and Iowa would respond was entirely up to us. The refugees were half a world away. In the current case, there are tens of thousands of children arriving at the border and action of some sort must be taken. There is something about being asked to help and being forced to help that can change attitudes. In addition, the current situation fits into the hotly contested issue of how to handle illegal immigrants in a way that the refugee situation in Southeast Asia did not. If anything, there was more sentiment for the Vietnamese refugees since their plight was due to our inability to defeat the Communist there. Yet, these issues really miss the humanitarian heart of Governor Ray’s response. He was not concerned with policy but with people. It is easy to see images of a bus being confronted by a mob or video taken from a helicopter of thousands of children trying to get to the United States and lose the personal aspect of the crisis.
In order to bring this story back to the plight of the people in these two cases, I will conclude with of my own personal story. During the late 1970s, I was an elementary school student in Iowa. We saw on the television the stories of the “boat people” and were told by our teachers that some Vietnamese families would be coming to our community. The next year, I moved to the community middle school where I met one of the Vietnamese kids, who was assigned as my locker partner. What started then was a friendship that strongly affected how I viewed the world and how I have taught my children to do likewise. I learned about his culture, his people, their cuisine (including a very weak form of iced tea that I still prefer), and their intense desire to succeed in this new opportunity. My friend excelled at everything he did and that was inspiring to me. I am sure that things were not easy for them and they probably encountered discrimination that I did not understand. Yet, they never lost their gratitude for the chance for a new life. I gained from it an exposure to differences that a white, middle-class, suburban, Iowa kid would not have had if not for the actions of Governor Robert Ray. For that I am eternally grateful. Perhaps that same good-fortune might come to others like me if they have the chance to interact with more people unlike them. Hopefully they will.
Note 1: Governor Ray’s thoughts on the crisis are presented in a series of short interviews.
Note 2: An example of Ed Bradley’s reporting on the situation can be seen in a June 1979 edition of 60 Minutes.
The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.