In a pure coincidence, the same week that Arizona enacted its policy requiring police officers to demand anyone they suspect of being illegal to produce proof of legal residency, I watched Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" for the first time.
Polanski is a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto; he spent his formative years scrabbling for food and doing his best to avoid being killed by Nazi soldiers.
The movie is harrowing, at times darkly funny, and heartbreaking, Polanski at the top of his form. His message is straightforward: In times of great fear, some hearts will choose to act compassionately, while others will succumb to hatred and depravity; and if somehow we manage to survive the madness, all we can turn to is Art (though I wonder if even Polanski believes that last bit. The closing scene, with the Holocaust survivor seated at a grand piano in a golden concert hall packed to the rafters with the bejeweled and bow-tied cream of Polish society, is filled with questions and accusations. It goes on for several minutes, the pianist's music moving and sublime, but as it progresses, your mind focuses less on the playing, and more on the ghosts hovering at the edges, the father and mother, sisters and brother who were lost to Hitler's camps; the German officer whose kindness saved the pianist's life, only to lose his own in the Soviet Gulag; the block after block of bombed-out buildings that had once been home to a thriving community of several hundred thousand Polish Jews; the people in that audience who had stood silent as the Nazis exterminated their neighbors. And you wonder, for all the beauty of the piece, is it enough? Can beauty -- alone, separate, the purely aesthetic -- heal the world's sins? And you feel, as Polanski waits until the last bit of applause has died to bring the screen to black, that it cannot. It is not enough.)
Which brings me to Arizona. The law is based on fear, the old conviction that the Other is the cause of all our troubles, be he a Jewish shop owner in Warsaw or a Mexican laborer working the Gila Valley cotton fields. And it is not a stretch to say that what happened to the Jews in eastern Europe began with seemingly little things, like authorizing police to make random checks of identity papers. No good thing comes from this kind of fear.
We have about 10 million illegals in this country. They are not nearly the drain on our resources that the Fox News crowd would have you believe. Most of them pay taxes. Many own homes. They contribute to Social Security. They are active in their communities. They spend money here, lots of it. And they are no more likely to commit violent crime than the average American: in fact, many studies indicate that the crime rate among illegals is actually significantly lower than the crime rate among American citizens of the same age, income level, and gender.
There is a solution to this. Grant a limited amnesty. To be eligible for a green card, candidates must be able to prove that they have been in the US for at least 5 years, that they have been gainfully employed for at least the last three years, and that they have been convicted of no crimes during that period. Candidates would have to have a sponsor employer, someone who would guarantee their continued employment for at least the next two years. The candidate would pay a $1000 fine for having been here illegally. He or she would pay an additional $500 for an unemployed spouse here with them, and $250 for each illegal child. This money would be garnished from their wages. They would also forfeit any claim to Social Security benefits on wages earned prior to their receipt of a green card. The sponsoring employer would pay a non-refundable bond of $500 per sponsored employee. Commit a crime within two years of receiving a green card, and you forfeit all rights to remain in the United States.
Anyone who does not meet this criteria -- the criminals, the chronically unemployed, those who have been here less than five years -- would be subject to deportation.
This is just a guess, but I figure that such a program would net the government about $7.5 billion in fees. In September 2009, the Government Accounting Office put the annual cost of maintaining a border fence between Mexico and the United States at $6.5 billion.
Every time I see a story about illegal immigration, I think about my great-grandparents, Piotr and Rosalia Litwin. They arrived here as part of a mistrusted, even hated group. They did not speak English. They were allowed into the country to work as laborers, another type of raw material fed into America's steel mills and iron works and bolt factories and automobile plants. They were not illegal, but arrived here when the standard for legal entry to this country was at its most lax. Had Piotr, a small, somewhat sickly man, arrived here just ten years later than he did, he would have most likely been excluded from entry: by 1920, "sunken chest" and "pigeon toes" were enough to get you sent back to Europe.
We are about ninety years removed from Piotr's arrival at Ellis Island. Here is, off the top of my head, some of what his progeny has become:
One elementary school teacher
Two college professors, including an English Department
chair and a Music Department Chair
Three practicing attorneys
One of the country's leading authorities on traditional Slavic music, and a nationally-recognized musician
An award-winning composer of avant-garde orchestral music
A published researcher on both Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder and the role of media in contemporary culture
A playwright and director who has established a thriving community theater group
Several members of the medical professions, including surgical technicians and registered nurses
A number of skilled craftsmen in the building and construction trades
Several successful small businessmen
In other words, Piotr Litwin's family built modern America. We ARE America.
As one of Piotr's progeny, how can I deny someone else an opportunity to add their own chapter to America's history?
We don't need Arizona fear. Amnesty now.