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Community Action Executive Director Alan Jennings offers his thoughts on the challenges of finding common ground on the otherwise intransigent issue of immigration in America in the following post.  His comments set up the discussion at the Hispanic Center’s Health Equity Summit on Election Day.


We have come here today to discuss an issue so complex, so divisive, so emotional, so dangerous, that it threatens to tear us apart as a nation, as a people.

It is being stoked by a president so cynical, so utterly incapable of empathy, so megalomaniacal, that he would use it to drive a bigger wedge deeper into the chasm that increasingly separates us, even though we are, fundamentally, a nation of immigrants.

Friends, poor, white, undereducated madmen who are paranoid as well as well-armed, are on hair-trigger alert for the latest sign from whoever is in their heads telling them to light the fire. They are opening fire on whatever group doesn’t look like them, sound like them, or share the killers’ views on religion. Hatred, of course, is born of ignorance.

What few of these angry white men seem to get is that none of us own the gates, we are all, or at least, ancestors, of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants. If you love your country, you are loving our immigrants.

Those who come to the land of the free, the home of the brave today, come for the same reasons those who came before them had. We have welcomed people from around the world for our entire history as a nation, one that has held itself out as a beacon of hope and opportunity.

How do people go about coming to the conclusion that their lives are so bad that they are willing to walk hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of miles with nothing, and face the mightiest military in the world in the most inhospitable environment in search of that hope and opportunity?

Do we as a nation, one that teaches its children to pledge allegiance to that nation alleging that we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, really plan on a confrontation with thousands of such seekers? And with what weapons, tear gas? Tasers? Automatic weapons? Shoulder-launched missiles? Or, worse, will we send them back? Wrench their children from their mothers’ arms? I fear that this confrontation might produce the kind of images that become icons of American hypocrisy, like My Lai, or Selma, Alabama.

After all, we are a nation of immigrants, so none of us here can lay claim to this land. The Lenni Lenape were the first humans to settle in the place we all now call the Lehigh Valley; they arrived approximately 10,000 years before the first Europeans showed up. And those newcomers, all of whom looked like me, promptly moved them elsewhere, most ending up in the Plains states.

Those first Europeans were Scots-Irish.

William Penn opened up the area we now call Pennsylvania as a place of religious tolerance in the 1730’s, bringing Reform Protestants, many of which were German, thus making the region populated by people we now call Pennsylvania Dutch.

What is widely considered the United States’ first wave of immigration took place from 1840 to 1889. This brought more Germans and other western Europeans to the Lehigh Valley.

Large numbers of Irish immigrants began arriving in the 1840s during the Potato Famine. By 1850, half the foreign-born population of Pennsylvania was Irish.

The first Jewish settlements in the Valley appeared in the 1840s in Allentown and Easton (although a Jewish trader of Spanish-Portuguese ancestry was one of the founders of Easton in 1750). Easton, in fact, is home to the tenth oldest Synagogue in the country.

The Welsh arrived in the 1840’s to work in the quarries in the Slate Belt and stayed to work in textile manufacturing.

We are a nation of immigrants.

The second wave of immigration to the U.S. took place between 1890 and the start of the First World War and brought Italians, Portuguese, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, including people from the Balkans, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary, and Russia, many of whom ended up working for Bethlehem Steel or in other industrial jobs. Among these new arrivals were large populations who were Jewish or Catholic. Folks who looked like me didn’t like those new arrivals, either. In fact, just about every newcomer was treated like pariah, often by the folks who had just shown up themselves.

In 1916, the first immigrants from Syria arrived in Allentown. Others followed, “lured” by local Presbyterian missionaries and a booming economy.

We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants.

In 1923, 200 Mexicans arrived in Bethlehem to work at the Steel.

In 1930, approximately 6,000 Slovenians (also called Windish) arrived in Bethlehem to work at the Steel or the Lehigh Valley Railway.

In the 1930s, Puerto Ricans also began moving to the Lehigh Valley, like so many before them, recruited to work in the steel and textile industries. The population of Puerto Ricans grew through the 1980s. Puerto Ricans, of course, are not immigrants but you wouldn’t know that by how they are treated

Clearly, most immigration in those days was a source of cheap labor for major employers.

The third wave of immigration began in the mid-1960s and brought immigrants primarily from Latin America. According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic/Latino population in the Lehigh Valley grew from 8.6% to 15% (a 74% increase). We all know that 3,000+ more came in just this past year, fleeing the horrific damage done by Hurricane Maria. I’d be willing to bet that Estamos Listos was the most hospitable welcome any wave of newcomers ever received when they came to the region.

The Atlantic magazine notes that Pennsylvania demographers expect Lehigh County will be a majority minority community by 2030, about ten years before the rest of the country. Without these immigrants, the Lehigh Valley would not be one of the fastest growing regions in the Commonwealth. Will those who we treated with our usual xenophobia turn on us as retribution for our sins?

We are, remember, a nation of immigrants.

Having said all of that, I have to offer the following disclosure: I don’t have a clear position on immigration. We can’t throw open the doors and let everyone in. I get that. But I would argue that American foreign policy has created a climate in many countries that leads to the diaspora of people fleeing repressive dictatorships. We have a knack for being on the wrong side of the revolution. American troops, for example, have repeatedly intervened in most of the countries in Central and Mezo-America.

Mexicans are being slaughtered by rival drug cartels that exist, almost entirely, to satiate the American demand for recreational but illegal drugs that probably shouldn’t even be illegal.

One could make the argument that we owe these innocent victims of our questionable policies some consolation.

Then there is our apparent need for workers. Those coming through the harsh southwest climate are outstanding workers. And, by and large, they are the folks most likely to do the jobs that no one else seems willing to do.

Whom should we accept? Mr. Trump wants more people from Scandinavia. He likes the blue-eyed crowd. The darker ones? Not so much.

Do we just allow rocket scientists to enter? Models? Wealthy people who can buy their way in by investing in urban redevelopment? Or will we take the huddled masses enshrined in the beacon of hospitality situated on a little island on the New York/New Jersey state line?

And what if you’re here legally, waiting for the green light to citizenship and those here illegally are given amnesty ahead of you?

If we were to stereotype Donald Trump, we would think he would be the kind of guy who would welcome the cheap labor.

So, why is he demonizing people who want to be a part of this nation? They come from all over the world, after all: Kazakhstan, Columbia, China and Ireland. Sweden, Greece, Poland and the African continent. Somehow, though, he only focuses on certain people. You know, I’m pretty cynical; cynical enough to know what I’m up against, but optimistic enough to pick the fight anyway.

But Donald Trump’s cynicism is deeper. It’s darker. And it works.

If your views are so extremist that they are shared by just a vocal minority, the only way you win is to divide the majority. And, boy, have they gotten good at it!

So, I look forward to hearing the views of others. I don’t want to hear from cold, calculating politicians for whom this issue works. I am really not interested in the views of well-armed militia who make villains out of poor people yearning for the freedom we espouse.

I am interested in the views of each of you, whether those views come from personal experience or thoughtful exploration of this difficult matter. So, let’s talk.

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