Can’t go home again

I grew up in Suffolk County, Long Island, a suburb of New York City. Although they were liberal-minded, my folks moved us there from the city during the ‘white flight’ of the late 60s. A massive welfare housing project opened next-door to our apartment building, and suddenly there was vandalism and grafitti and a huge fence around our building; suddenly, I was the only white kid in my 3rd-grade class and I was mugged several times walking the 2 or 3 blocks home from school. It bothered them to leave the city, but they felt they had to.

So, I grew up in a very white, middle-class neighborhood of wide streets, green lawns, cars, and a complete lack of anything that could be called “culture.” No museums, no galleries, no place to meet people except the mall or the 7-11. There was a black family on our block, but the kids were jocks, and I was a brain and a druggie, and other than saying cordial “Hi”s to each other, there was no real contact. There were no Hispanics in my classes, as far as I can recall, no Asians, no Native Americans; when it came to minorities, I was it… the token Jew.

My family spent many years striving for some inclusion, fighting to have the school system recognize that, at the very least, I shouldn’t be penalized for missing a test given on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur (the Jewish High Holy Days), or that maybe the winter choral concert could have one number about Hannukkah — or at least one number without Christ — or that perhaps if history class was going to refer to the religious foundations of the dominant Western civilization, they could refer to it as “Judeo-Christian” heritage, instead of just “Christendom”, or that if the luchroom was going to serve ham that day, they should also have an alternative I could eat: not sausage pizza. And their efforts paid off; there’s now some sensitivity towards other cultures in those schools. (There are also catalogues of the ridiculous extremes to which political correctness can be taken, but…)

Because of my experience, I thought of Long Island as a kind of blandly tolerant place. I moved away from there permanently in 1995, although I visited regularly, since my parents lived there until just a couple of weeks ago, my sister still lives there, and we have a bunch of friends still living on the Island. My image of the place has stayed frozen in that sweet light of childhood.

Suffolk County, alas, has not remained frozen. An article in today’s New York Times details some of the nastiness directed at the recent influx of Hispanic immigrants.

…the issue of illegal immigration is rapidly gathering political force in Long Island’s patchwork of historically white suburban hamlets, and as the complaints grow, politicians are responding with get-tough rhetoric, crackdowns and new laws.

“Public opinion has changed,” said Sue Grant, one of several Farmingville residents who rise each morning to stand on street corners and demonstrate against the day laborers in their community. “More and more people are coming forward and saying, ‘I’m sick of this.’ They don’t want this anymore.”

The “this” they claim to be protesting against is what in other areas and other countries is referred to as the continuing and growing problem of illegal immigration. But in Suffolk County, the leading voices in this anti-immigration crusade say:

The definition of today’s immigration problem is very clear. Not every new arrival here, born in another country, is an immigrant. “Illegal immigrant” is a contradiction in terms. Euphemisms such as “undocumented” or “day laborer” or “migrant” are false definitions serving only to disguise the real definition of this population phenomenon.

We, the residents of Farmingville, have always had the courage and conviction to call it what it really is – nothing less than “an invasion and occupation of communities all over this country.”

It’s an “invasion”. These nasty, dirty, smelly people who talk a different language are invading our communities, infesting our houses, congregating on our street-corners, taking the jobs we don’t want, looking at our women… The Greater Farmingdale Community Association (whose leader, Ray Wysolmierski was formerly head of the Sachem Quality of Life Organization, a disgustingly racist group profiled in the recent film “Farmingville”) is not ashamed to wear its racist Ashcroft-ism on its sleeve, saying:

That this is an invasion and occupation is not simply our opinion or viewpoint. It is a fact. Even if one dares to reject or dismiss all the mountains of compelling evidence – the many essays, speeches, videotapes, audiotapes, conversations that attest to the invasion or re-conquest of this nation by Mexico – one cannot dismiss the simple definition of “invasion” found in the highly regarded Oxford English Dictionary: To intrude upon, infringe, encroach on, violate the property, rights and liberties of, to invade is to usurp, seize upon, take possession of.

They who refuse to accept that this is an invasion and occupation are in a state of denial that is dangerous not only for them but for our nation because people who impose themselves upon or intimidate unwilling victims are, in fact, by definition, low-level terrorists.

Those who support them, therefore, are not compassionate humanitarian advocates, but terrorist sympathizers. And it’s difficult to gather sympathy, to feel the pain of your local arrogant terrorist invader.

Others are less in-your-face with their racism, hiding it in seemingly-compassionate concerns, which they claim are “necessary, fair and colorblind. They said they are not singling out Hispanic immigrants, but are trying to break up the networks of overcrowded homes, unlicensed contractors and absentee landlords that exploit day laborers.” So, to save them from exploitation, poor working conditions and poverty, these compassionate folks are seeking to deport these hard-working immigrants to places — mainly Mexico and Central America — where there are no jobs, no money and no future.

Steve Levy, the County Executive for Suffolk, recently stirred up the outrage some more by suggesting that the county police department should be “deputized” by the Department of Homeland Security, to expand their jurisdiction to immigration crimes:

Deputization is a new and little understood concept. Police departments nationwide already have the power to report to immigration authorities undocumented immigrants who commit criminal offenses, and often do. But deputization expands their powers, allowing them to detain immigrants solely for being undocumented. It also allows them to more easily question immigrants about their legal status and to initiate deportation proceedings. For instance, when making routine traffic stops police can ask to see immigrants’ legal papers.

“Your papers, please.” Those should be chilling words to anyone who hears them. To their credit, the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association‘s president, Jeff Frayler, spoke out against the proposal, saying, “the deputization plan is ill-conceived and will serve only to destroy the hard-won goodwill police have built up with Mexican day laborers in Farmingville and other communities.” And faced with the rising tide of criticism of his plan, Levy has decided to back off, although he is still seeking other ways to deal with the problem.

The most disgusting thing about this whole mess is the transparency behind the lack of any given reason for the anti-immigration tide. If the problem truly is poor-quality housing and abusive landlords, then go after the landlords! If the problem is unlicensed contractors, then go after the contractors, or let the shoddy workers shit where they eat and drive themselves out of business. Is the problem jobs? Are the immigrant workers really taking away jobs from the decent white folk? Are the sons and daughters of the decent white folk really clamoring for the right to harvest the potatoes, clean the offices, mow the lawns, slap together the million dollar tract houses for wages small enough to keep everything affordable for the decent white folk?

No, this isn’t about any economic issue. This anti-immigrant sentiment wouldn’t have been out of place in the Deep South 40 years ago. This is racism, pure and simple. This is “bar the doors before the savages ruin our way of life.” This is, “I moved here 30 years ago to get away from those kinds of people.” This is, “I don’t want my daughter to have to sit next to one of them in school.” This is irrational, all-consuming hatred of the Other. And it’s not any place I ever have a desire to call “Home” again.