Sunday, July 1, 2018

Immigration Song

Yesterday morning, I left my apartment uptown to attend the protest to end the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, in his finite wisdom, signed an executive order to end these separations, but they still happened, and news reports tell us that it’s unclear how the administration is going to reunite all of the families it tore apart. If you haven’t yet heard the audio of kids crying and moaning for their parents in a detention facility in Texas, you need to. There’s no excusing it.

After I packed my sunscreen and new baseball hat (Oakland A’s) to deal with the rays, I thought I would work on an unfinished piece to focus my attention. (And, yup, stimulate a b.m. before getting onto the Brooklyn Bridge, the main stretch of the protest route.) I had started this piece in 2017, near the beginning of my first year as a middle school writing teacher in Harlem. 

Here goes:

Sometime in autumn, something interesting occurred to me while waiting for the A train at 145th Street after work. I was with my colleague, Priya, who also lived uptown, and we were probably there within the latter half of the evening rush. We both felt that the train was taking a while to arrive, and it felt particularly wrong to me that it was the A train that was late. I figured that any line with a Duke Ellington Orchestra song about it should live up to its legacy, and get me home.

We were standing there, and it was hot, and we were both new teachers. I was wearing wool slacks and a tucked-in shirt and carrying a backpack with a laptop and lesson plans, plus a canvas tote with leftover food. My knees hurt from standing up in the classroom. There were a good number of people on the platform, and I think Priya commented that the number proved the train was late. “Look at all the people,” she said.

Then, a new wave of people came up the stairs onto the platform, where, like gas molecules intermingling with other gas molecules, they floated into positions along the track. I remember noticing a woman who may have been of East Asian descent among this new group. She was quiet, and looked self-possessed. Some of the new arrivals kept walking toward a second flight of stairs to another platform, but plenty of them integrated into the initial—initial to me—group that had been waiting for the A.

I probably wondered if those who were just arriving would cede the way to those who were already on the platform when the train did come. I may have thought that it didn’t matter so much, maybe because we were pretty far uptown and there would probably be space once passengers disembarked. I probably also hoped that they would make way, would notice that I was there first, that some kind of tiered grouping of commuters, based on wait time, would persist despite the intermingling. And this is when it occurred to me that what I was also thinking about, or looking at, was the situation of immigrants from the perspective of someone who considers himself native-born.

You’re tired, your knees hurt, you’ve been working all day, and you haven’t done anything to make the train late, but it is. You’ve been waiting for a while, and then another group of people comes to wait as well. You feel like you have a claim on any spots that are available on the train when it does come, but there’s no system in place to insure you do. And you don’t even know if the train is coming, or if there will be any spots; you just know that you were on the platform, waiting, before this second wave of folks arrived.

How you think about this second wave could be an indication of how you think of immigrants who arrived in your community after you or your family. You might feel like you should have first crack at getting a job or finding a home, but there’s no way you can guarantee either. All you can control is how hard you work and how well you treat yourself and others. And treating other people well, whatever your opinion on immigration policy, requires understanding one of the messages I saw at the march: “IMMIGRANTS are not dangerous. They ARE just PEOPLE looking for a better life.”

It’s also important to remember that unless you’re descended from an indigenous people, someone was here before your forebears arrived. One thing I don’t remember from that evening on the platform, when I was wondering how the newcomers would accommodate my presence, is who had already been standing there before me.

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