The son of immigrants has a change of heart

  It is an urban legend, but I believe it. A traveling salesman wrote to a hotel, complaining that he’d been bitten by bedbugs. He got a lengthy letter of apology back, saying that bedbugs had never been seen on the premises or even within blocks of the hotel. Inside the envelope, he also found a note: "Send the bedbug letter."

I believe the story because I once had a bedbug letter of my own. I sent it to people who wrote to tell me that High Country News was wasting its time reporting on mining, damming and overgrazing. The real problem? Overpopulation.

My bedbug letter always sympathized with the letter writer. I wouldn’t mind fewer people clogging up roads and trails. But I said I didn’t know how to fight population growth, except by writing about the effects of more people pressing on forests, rivers and open space.

Reproduction, I said, was like the other primal emotions. We chose not to go head-to-head against overpopulation anymore than we went head-to-head against lust and greed or murderous hearts. That we left to the preachers.

But life got more complex during the last decade. "Overpopulation" now means immigration into the United States, mainly by Mexican nationals. It is no longer a matter of Americans’ inability to control ourselves. It is now a matter of fellow human beings of other nationalities being unable to match their economies to their fecundity. It has also become a matter of obeying our laws and maintaining our borders.

But I’m also the child of immigrants. My parents came here for the same reason people come today: for a better life and to send money home. They didn’t expect the streets to be paved with gold. My mother, from a village in Poland, was astounded to see that streets were paved at all. They came to work, and to escape a hellhole. How could I oppose others coming here for similar reasons?

This is very personal reasoning, and journalists, after all, are expected to weigh the public-policy implications of immigration and come up with a rational answer. But I’m overwhelmed by dispatches from the ground. Americans no longer care to mow their lawns or clean their toilets or slaughter the chickens we eat. Nor do we want to learn to do computer programming the way Asians do. Or run the Chinese restaurants that in the last few years have moved into even the small-town West.

I also admit to a streak of libertarianism that admires freedom in all its forms, including the free-market nature of immigration. But my pro-immigration tilt took a hit this Christmas in Mexico, thanks to a conversation with a landscape gardener hired to turn a sandy beach close to the Pacific Ocean into a lawn. He is the father of 11 and leads a clan of dozens. He landscapes full time and farms full time. His own yard is a small food factory, staffed by his growing family.

He is proud of his life, and he should be. But he was also incredulous at our lives. He indicated that a father, mother, son and daughter wasn’t a family at all. It was more an hors d’oeuvre, a tapas. I’d like to think he wasn’t contemptuous of us personally. But he was dismissive of a culture where only two children might be the norm.

This was the other, patriarchal face of immigration: one of the men who stands, invisible, behind the image of a young woman, babe in arms, wading the Rio Grande River at night.

Should I be swayed by his attitude? Should I be swayed by knowing that some of his children will probably come to America, or may already be here? Should I be swayed by knowing that Mexico’s second largest source of income after oil exports is expatriate workers sending money home?

I think I should be. When it comes to important matters, we have no choice but to trust our emotions, tempered by our hearts and minds. Here’s what they tell me: It would be good for Americans to clean our toilets, write our computer programs, slaughter our chickens and cattle, and pick our strawberries.

And it would be good for Mexicans to cope with their population and economy without using the United States as an overflow tank, and without using the poor Mexican people as cash cows, to be exported as if they were crude oil or cattle.

Ed Marston is senior journalist for High Country News, and its former publisher.