Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Anti-immigration has a long history in the United States. Even our great Founding Fathers were, at times, hostile to immigrants. Benjamin Franklin was hostile to Germans in colonial Pennsylvania. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 which prevented French and Irish immigrants from gaining full political rights. There’s probably not a single group that hasn’t been at the center of anti-immigration or racist policies at some point in our history. Catholics, Germans, Irish, French, Italians, Chinese, and most recently Latinos have all been the targets of xenophobia. Yet who could imagine an America without these people?
We’re gearing up for elections. Immigration is a hot topic. The United States doesn’t have an official language though about 80% of the population speaks English. Spanish makes up about 10% while Indo-European, Asian, and Pacific island languages fill in the rest. My state, Florida, is an important election state. It also happens to be home to millions of immigrants and blacks. Only about 60% of Florida’s population is non-Hispanic white. The Florida Constitution provides that English is the official language of the state, but it’s very easy to find plenty of people – plenty of American citizens – that don’t speak English. Case in point: my mother. And my father’s aunt who became an American citizen in her late 80s, may she rest in peace.
In last night’s Republican debate, it became clear that although the GOP candidates have no problem filming campaign commercials and distributing fliers in Spanish, they believe English should the nation’s official language, and would limit voter participation for American citizens over language.
“I would have ballots in English, and I think you could have programs where virtually everybody would be able to read the ballots,” Newt Gingrich said. His rivals agreed. There was no further elucidation on what such programs would look like. Currently, ballots in my county are in English, Spanish, and Creole.
Australia has its own issues with immigration and refugees. Just as the country gets ready to celebrate Australia Day, Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal Party (and I’m not sure “liberal” in Australia means the same thing it does here) is coming under fire for recent comments he made about sending back all asylum-seeker boats.
But just as there is hope for America, there is hope for Australia. Associate Professor Charles Teo has given a beautiful Australia Day address that taps into the essence of Australia’s, and in some ways, America’s national spirit.
Spending 9 years in the USA was an enlightening experience. Before I went to America I had an unresolved internal conflict on the issue of immigration. My parents were immigrants, my Godparents were immigrants and many of their friends were immigrants. As a child growing up amongst immigrants and die-hard, true-blue Aussies in blue-collar Picnic Point, I feel I am somewhat qualified to offer comment on the issue of refugees. I was proud that Chinese never featured in the tabloids or the evening news. I wanted it to stay that way and I thought that limiting the number of Chinese entering the country would ensure the bad ones would be excluded. I felt Australia was such a great place to live, in no small part as a result of its isolation, not despite it. We appeared to be immune from World Wars, border conflicts and dwindling natural resources. Why would you ruin this blissful isolation by allowing “queue jumpers”, potential criminals, into our Utopia? My time in the USA made me reflect on how a country that was not that much older or bigger than ours had achieved such a standing on the world stage. In general, Americans were not more intelligent, diligent or talented than Australians. They have natural resources, so do we. Their pioneers did it tough, so did ours. They had a national pride, so do we. Speak to most Americans and they will be the first to concede the dependence of their economy on the hard-working and fiercely loyal Mexicans. Speak to almost any taxi driver anywhere in the 50 states and you will be inspired by a story of tragedy and conflict followed by hope and opportunity and concluded by a statement of national pride…in America NOT their country of birth. I don’t know for sure, and I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but, having lived in the USA for 10 years, I would be hopeful that our country would benefit from immigration of peoples from countries of conflict, or those subjected to political persecution, who are simply seeking refuge from violence and a better life for their children. I believe Australia has a moral and social obligation to demonstrate a higher level of kindness to and acceptance of refugees. I don’t know how this may be achieved but I certainly know that both sides of the political fence are floundering. I would humbly suggest that a bi-partisan approach would be one step closer to a solution and we need it now!
I invite you to read Dr. Teo’s entire Australia Day address.