America's Welcome Mat
By Samir Shukla
One cold January night, while flipping through channels, my wife and I happened upon a movie that had just begun playing on TCM. The B&W film, Hold Back the Dawn, drew us in within a few moments with its layered story. It's a wonderful film that I had never seen or heard of before. TCM's narrator Ben Mankiewicz later recapped the film and said it had received six Oscar nominations including for Best Picture, back in 1941.
The film is about immigrants trying to get into the United States. You can guess by the year that they are all Europeans escaping fascism and war in Europe. They have made it to Mexico on the California border somehow and have applied for visas in their own manners and await their fate. The protagonist is a con artist and womanizer who finds out the “quota" for his country of origin, Romania, is very small and he would have to wait several years to legally acquire entrance into the US.
He is passing the days in Mexico for months until an old girlfriend shows up and tells him how she acquired a legal way to get into the States, by marrying an American. She ditched her husband once she acquired a visa to get into the States, of course. Our protagonist now gets the idea and targets a young American school teacher he accidentally meets when she brings a group of school children to Mexico for a daylong trip.
Well, without going into the whole story let's just say he tricks and then later charms her and manages to marry her within 24 hours. The rest of the film is an exploration of this story. Other characters in the film include a pregnant woman who realizes she is about to give birth and crosses the border one day (it was surprisingly easy to walk through the gate) and has a child on the American side, and now instantly her child is an American citizen. There are other tales of future Americans-in-waiting woven into the whole story. The film's plot and the interwoven characters all make it worth seeing.
I thought of contemporary debates about immigration while watching the film. DACA, H1B, jumping the border, marrying American citizens and other means of entering the country seem to have parallels in the film, which takes place over 75 years ago at a very different time in American history. The film's characters, much like millions around the world today, were simply trying to find ways to enter the land of their dreams.
There is clearly a rise in anti-immigrant feeling under the Trump administration, but his supporters' arguments against chain migration, worker visas taking American jobs, added stress on social services, and reducing illegal immigration by any means, are all valid concerns. I don't write them off loosely as all hate speech or rising intolerance. There are genuine fears for underemployed Americans, even though a lot of the fear doesn't pan out statistically, while the prime ethos remains in place, that Americans are generally very tolerant and welcoming people.
The current increase in anti-immigration sentiment is not new. My family has been here since 1974 and has received much love and support though the years, but I can recall several negative personal experiences. The first year I was in the States, a self-important and pudgy classmate, whose thick accent gave away his own recent arrival from Britain, taunted me several times saying, “We civilized you." Meaning the Brits civilized Indians. His overall meaning was also “What the hell are you doing here? You don't belong here." Alas, I couldn't come up with a retort at the time to put that little punk in his place.
In the early 80s, while strolling through a New York City store during a vacation with family members, the clerk nonchalantly blurted out, “See all Indians are same… they won't buy anything..." I can almost hear him mumble under his breath, “Why don't you go home." His attitude clearly implied that Indians are cheapskates and brought their frugal ways with them, even though there were many other people who strolled through the store and walked out without buying anything, as tourists do in touristy areas and shops around the world.
When I owned a record store, a young black male accosted me more than once to say “You Indians are taking our jobs. Why don't you go back to where you came from?" That was in the 90s.
There have been other instances, but I don't take them as general hostile nature of average Americans. Here, we have been afforded opportunities that would not have been possible elsewhere. I am a product of the best elements of two cultures. I am an American and I am proud of my Indian heritage. I have always said I don't have any issues with my duality.
Human migration to other lands has always been marked with dissonance and fear, the natives sometimes uncomfortable with new arrivals. Some migrants have also wrought devastation of lands and cultures. Just ask Native Americans. White Europeans didn't take away jobs from Native Americans when they migrated to America, they took their souls.
Steady immigration has had a positive impact on America and conversely on those who immigrate here. Most Americans know and understand this. There will always be a small percentage of haters, but most who want to reduce immigration into this country, both legal and illegal, aren't necessarily all haters or racists. They have legitimate economic fears. I get it. It's when politicians skew numbers, espouse fearmongering, and inflame passions that haters and racists crawl out of the woodwork. They feel empowered and bogus narratives are formed. This can lead to further degradation of the real American story, one that evolves with each wave of immigrants into something better.
There are plenty of bipartisan possibilities to weave long-term immigration solutions. It requires courage and that is hard for policymakers, many genuinely want to effect positive change, when the next election and loud partisans always loom around the corner.
This piece first appeared in the February 2018 edition of Saathee magazine.