We're All Visitors Here

May 29, 2006

We once had a city councilor in Santa Fe who asked me why I was leading a certain meeting, since I was just another pilgrim. What he meant, of course, was that there was a time in the 19th century when all these white folks had come streaming in from St. Louis and they were all illegals. He was probably thinking: “It would have been really smart, in the 1820s, to have built a great fence across Glorieta Pass, right where the old Santa Fe Trail comes around the corner. It would have been good to have stopped the illegals right then.”

What the councilor did not say, of course, was that there was an earlier time when the Spanish were flowing into Latin America and the Aztecs were probably sitting up there in their palaces saying, you know, we should have built a fence along the seacoast, right where those ships came sailing in.

Now the Congress of the United States, a country founded by illegals, is watching a stream of Latinos flow into Los Angeles, and Chicago and Miami asking, where did all these new illegals, come from? New illegals, it should be clear, are not as acceptable as old illegals. Who is going to pay for their hospitals and schools and who is going to police them and we ought to build a wall along Texas and New Mexico and Arizona and California, and maybe a coastal patrol up from Miami toward Charleston, and maybe another one from Los Angeles toward San Francisco. You can hear the Coast Guard saying, “Who’s got the Mississippi inlets, and the coves and the river entries?” And the Army National Guard asking: “Who’s got the little airfields in Texas?

Depending upon which century we are talking about, New Mexicans should either be keeping some of us out, or we should be keeping some of them out. Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep it just the way it was before this current invasion, which is the way it was just after the last invasion. We all know which invasion we were part of and for most of us, that was the good one. On the face of it, however, just speaking about the justice of the thing, it is hard to figure how white Anglo Americans should be saying to descendants of the Incas and the Mayas how they cannot come here when this place used to more or less belong to them, and we took it from them the same way they are taking it from us: just by coming on in, looking for a way to make a living.

Some Americans, who don’t think like that, are down at the border carrying heavy firearms, trying to frighten away the next wave. Other Americans on the other hand are down at the border leaving water bottles in the desert, trying to aid those who might die in the crossing. One immigrant, who stopped to have a baby and lay dying in the hot sun, was aided by an Anglo woman from the north, and the mother’s life was saved. Whereupon the Border Patrol arrested not only the new mother but the angel of mercy, saying to her, more or less, we don’t do mercy in these circumstances.

What have we come to, we might ask, as a people, when we arrest and jail a woman who is helping to save the life of another woman, a woman who is dying in the desert after childbirth? What is there that is so important about our own jobs, our own hospital care, our own schools, that we can drive out the natural compassion that is in us, cover it over and pretend we just don’t care?

When the principle of the thing, the principle that those who come here should earn it, that they should pay for it, that they should make it right in their own country first, when any such principle, overrides the natural, blessed instinct in us toward compassion and caring when it is most needed, then maybe that is a principle which should be left behind. No principle, no sense of legal right, or current legal claim, should be greater than the fact of our mutual dependence upon one another.

Today we are the legals. Tomorrow we may be the illegals. Who knows? Before New Mexico was New it was Old. And who of us will not be in the desert someday, needing help from a stranger?