The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy
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Neighbors Talk About Town Lines
Once in a while I heard about collective acts in discussions about local conditions and the treatment of others—in one case even immigrant neighbors. Americans have long been unsettled in their views about hardworking—and often economically desperate—immigrants who reside in local communities or make use of public institutions. This ambivalence is not surprising; ours is a capricious history when it comes to immigration. We have welcomed immigrants as the nation’s future and also called them a scourge; we have enjoyed their cheap hard labor while challenging their children’s access to public schools; we have opened doors leading to immigrants’ offspring becoming major social and political figures and then erected walls to bar others from entering.
We are deep in the latter national temperament right now, yet throughout this research I met all sorts of people who found this a troubling attitude. While everyone said that there have to be laws, they also said “we are a nation of immigrants.” We were all foreigners at one time or another. Other than the American Indian people, as a teacher in New York pointed out to me, “you ask about families, almost everyone will tell you” about another land that their people once came from and how that matters to them. “Kids love to tell their family’s cultural history.” So, are only the old immigration histories to be valued and the new ones to be eradicated? And how, then, do we mark the divide?
In some places this becomes a town line. In a modest town in the United States that sits on the border between the American Southwest and Mexico, several hundred children mill around their bus stop waiting to go to school every day. Many cross the border line to get on the bus. They live in Mexico but are American because the only hospital in the area is on the U.S. side of the border. So both Mexicans and Americans go to the local hospital to give birth, and later these children attend school together on the U.S. side of the border. They grow up together.
When there’s a fire in the small town on the Mexican side of the border the American fire trucks race over the crossing to put it out, because the Mexican town doesn’t have a fire station close by. When a person is injured in the Mexican town, an ambulance speeds over to bring him to the only available hospital, on the U.S. side of the line. It’s what those people do—put out fires that burn up homes or deliver people who are injured to the care that they need. And it’s what the teachers do at the local schools—they educate children, in this case children of two nations. The route to the schoolyard differs for the two sets of kids, but they come with the same need to learn.
At one time, several years ago, an effort was afoot to bar the children from the southern side of the border from crossing over and coming to the school. It was argued that “we” shouldn’t pay for their education, even though for decades children who had been educated at the school had grown into adults who worked in the United States as well as Mexico. They provide labor, taxes, family life. Some, no doubt, join fire departments and work in hospitals and in schools. They replenish the well from which they have drawn. But in keeping with a time when children’s needs and injured people’s lives were being measured by cost and market gain, a campaign emerged to cut off half a community. It didn’t work.