Richard Bigelow’s border country perspective on immigration and immigrants


Every now and then a new name and a new perspective crosses my screen, and so it was when a great friend forwarded something her high school classmate, Richard Bigelow, had recently written.

Mr. Bigelow lives in border country Texas and grew up in rural Colorado. He responds, here, to one of those ubiquitous basically anti-immigrant online postings that say if you’re not “white like me,” then get out.

“Yes, I have some different thoughts on immigration than those in the letter you sent. My thinking is in process and I don’t purport to have very many answers to the many difficult issues involved but I am happy to share some of my thoughts.

As you know, I am a middle class, white, mostly Anglo-Saxon, protestant, male, born in the United States of America. That makes me part of the most powerful group of people to ever walk the planet. I love my country and believe we have done and continue to do more good in the world than any other nation. Our laws and system of justice while not perfect are the best the world has to offer. I am a proud citizen of the USA. That said, I believe that there are some major problems at home and in the world that we as a great and powerful nation have a human, moral and Christian obligation to address. Poverty and racism are two of those problems that are core in the immigration debate.

One doesn’t have to go back too far in history to realize we are all immigrants, maybe including even the ‘Native American’ population. Being part of the English immigrant group that became the dominant group way before I was born it is easy to understand some of the ethnocentric feeling articulated in [the internet] letter.

However, as a teen I became aware of the melting pot myth. As you know, there were not many minority families in [my Colorado home town]. My first Black and Hispanic friends were from [a nearby larger city] and not only did they not want to melt but would not have been allowed had they wanted. They were considered by much of the dominant culture as inferior and were treated differently. In my first minorities class in college we talked about the tossed salad analogy as opposed to the melting pot. This allows for a wonderful multi cultural society where we live together with many common issues but maintain and even celebrate the differences.

This idea continues to guide me in my life journey. I can and sometimes do celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco De Mayo, Kwanzaa, Passover, even tried to fast during Ramadan one year (that sucked). I love to dance the Chicken Dance in Fredericksburg, visit China Town in S.F., Little Italy in New York and Boston. Anyway you get the idea.

In spite of my pride in the USA I believe we have a lot to answer for. We have allowed those immigrants who look and sound kind of like us to assimilate while exploiting the Black, Brown, and Yellow “immigrates.” I don’t think I need to rehash civil rights stuff here or the history of how we provoked a war with Mexico so we could lay claim to land from Colorado to California. Nor should I have to review the immoral treatment of Japanese and German Americans during WWII. I also hope that most people are aware of how many of us have in the past and continue to encourage and even help bring workers here illegally so we can build our own wealth and that of our great nation by paying meager wages and limited benefits.

I have chosen to live in an area close to the border where I am a minority. When I go to a store and no one speaks English and those ethnocentric thoughts begin to kick in, I only have to remember that many of these families have been right here since before the Pilgrims made it to New England. You would be hard pressed to find a more patriotic group of people ready to serve this great nation than among the Mexican/American community here.

I think you know that [my wife] is from here, but I am not sure you know she is a descendant of the Solis family, part of a big Spanish land grant from the 1500’s that was on both sides of the river. Her grandparents only spoke Spanish and she only spoke Spanish when she started 1st grade. Her well-meaning Anglo teachers punished her when she spoke Spanish — even at recess and when asking to go to the bathroom. She learned her lessons well, lived in Houston for 10 years and is much more urbane than me. With my last name and her light complexion people think she is Anglo. My redneck friends in Abilene would try telling her Mexican jokes. I cut them off if I saw it coming, but didn’t always see it coming. She only smiled, but in her heart she is really not sure that she is not somehow inferior — and she still feels guilty speaking Spanish even though she uses it everyday in her work with veterans. It breaks my heart.

While it is hard to generalize about such a large group of people, I believe that most of the documented and undocumented immigrants are here because they already have family here and or they are unable to support themselves adequately in their home country. I think that the reason we don’t have a big problem on the Canadian border is that their economy is good, they look and sound more like the dominant culture and I am told it is not too hard to get a work visa especially if one has a needed skill.

I understand it is very difficult and time consuming to get a work visa in the US if one is from Mexico or Central America, and especially if one doesn’t have a professional credential. Again my ethnocentric self thinks “good, we have enough problems without importing a bunch more poor unskilled laborers that will further stress ‘our’ economy.”

However, there is data that suggests that if the undocumented were able to earn a fair wage and pay taxes it might actually help the economy. Also my Human and Christian ethics kick in and I am reminded that God put the river there but we made it a border. If I couldn’t feed my family on the other side I would try to cross anyway I could. I do not want to tear down the Statue of Liberty or besmirch the Ellis Island folks [a suggestion in the letter to which he responds]. But there are other stories equally compelling.

There are no easy answers to the immigration questions. We have made great progress in the civil rights arena in my lifetime but racism is still alive and well. Ethnocentric pride in one’s country can be a close cousin to racism. One need only to read all the anger and hate on the internet as people post regarding anything Obama does or on the new Arizona law. People who think there are easy answers like tougher laws, fences, or militarizing the border are at best naive at worst racist.

I would like to see policies developed with love of neighbor as the guiding light, and more money spent on improving the economy in other countries even if we have to sacrifice more. To whom a lot is given a lot is expected. There is something wrong in a nation who spends more on a cup of designer coffee than some workers make in a day, or where we spend more on pet care than the GNP of some nations. I am not sure open borders is the right thing but I am not sure that it is not. I do think we need some kind of amnesty although I am not yet sure what it should look like. I believe in the ideal of one world with equality for all but I’m not naive enough to think we will get there any time soon. However, I never thought I would see a woman or black president. I am now hopeful I will see a woman.

On the subject of the Arizona law, I would think every American, liberal or conservative, should be worried. I don’t want to live in a society where I or anyone else has to carry papers. Even under current law when we leave our home heading north we have to go through check points about 60 miles from the border. They are multi-million dollar facilities with all kinds of electronic equipment and usually dozens of border patrol agents on duty. I must turn off my cell phone, wait in line, usually less than 5 minutes, they sometimes check my undercarriage with a mirror, and frequently have dogs who sniff the outside of my car. They usually only ask “are you a US citizen” and wave me through. [My wife] gets even less hassle because she is so pale and I’m so swarthy. Sometimes they ask “where are you going today?” Now I can either tell them, lie to them or say what I would like to say — “none of your xxx business” — but then I would be there a while so I lie to them. The woman agents seem to like to hear “I am headed to Dallas to visit my grand-kids.”

It’s a minor hassle for me but I assure you that some of my dark-skinned, heavy accented brothers and sisters have much more hassle including the dog inside and sometimes even pat downs. I don’t like it and I damn sure don’t want to empower or require the local or state police to do the same stuff. To those who say “they are only enforcing the law,” I would remind them the this great nation was founded by a bunch of law breakers (as in tea party).

Unjust laws need to be challenged.

Everyone must find his or her own ethic and act accordingly. I am not always sure what to do but I pray about it a lot. For now I plan to continue offering food and shelter to those headed north with or without papers when I can. I would help them get through the check points if I could but I don’t know how without getting arrested. I will pay them the same with or without papers to cut my grass etc. so they can eat. I will support my sister-in-law, with my tax dollars, who takes care of badly damaged babies who were lucky enough to take advantage of the law that lets them become a citizen because the mother crossed for delivery.I will not report the husband of friend who is spending 3 years in prison at tax payers expense who was formerly making a living for his family by day labor and who will be deported when he is released and then be back with his family within a week. I will support and applaud my friend who teaches ESL [English as a Second Language] to the undocumented children of fishermen from Central America and takes them to UIL competitions where they usually excel. I will continue to travel to Rio Bravo (30 miles into Mexico) as part of my church mission to help at a deaf school even though travel is kind of risky right now with the cartel wars.

I know you like to read , so I’l recommend the following:

  • Manana (don’t know how to make the ~ over the n) by Justo Gonzales the Methodist Clergy Cuban born who I think is still on faculty at the International Seminary in Atlanta

  • The Great River by Paul Hogan (a History of the Rio Grande but reads like a novel)

  • Rain of Gold by Victor Villa Senor (again with the ~ on the n another story of immigration not via Ellis Island)

Thanks for letting me share some of my thoughts. Reasonable people should reason together.”