Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I've been reading...

Though it was a bit hazy, from one of the many hills that forced us to dismount our bikes, you could see hundreds of sailboats,the San Francisco skyline and the San Rafael Bridge on the left. We had a glorious time: last Saturday, Homerina, George and I packed a picnic lunch and our bicycles and drove up to Tiburon where we boarded a ferry that took us into Ayala Cove on the north side of the largest island in San Francisco Bay. Angel Island is a national park where you can bike, hike, camp and learn--especially about a different kind of "nature." Yes, the pristine flora, fauna and terrain are exquisite, the vistas expansive and reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea, but what's truly interesting about Angel Island is its history and what it reveals about human nature--particularly as I think about it on a day when our Senate voted to block President Bush's very controversial attempt at reforming immigration legislation.

Miwoks lived on Angel Island for thousands of peaceful years before the Spaniards and then the Mexicans colonized it. In 1839 General Vallejo, the Mexican governor of what was then called Alta California, gifted the island to Antonio Maria Osio, a military commandant, who used it as his personal cattle ranch. Osio lost the island, though, after the 1846 war that resulted in the United States taking California from Mexico; an American court decided that, given the increased need for national security, the island was strategically adequate for a military base--and then for an Immigration Station. Construction began in 1905 and by 1910 when the Station started operating it was known as the "Ellis Island of the West" and, more tellingly, as "The Guardian of the Western Gate." Its main function was to guard against the entrance of Chinese and other Asian immigrants--to be a detention center (much like, some would say, Guantanamo during the last few years).

That blatantly discriminatory policy had been legislated with the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. That set of laws not only restricted who would be accepted into the U.S but it consequently forced Asians (especially Chinese who had come to California looking for gold since 1848, if not before) to be relegated to taking menial low-paying jobs that no one else wanted. Thus, for instance, Chinese laborers laid almost all of the tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad--tracks that now also carry undocumented Mexican and Central Americans to their menial low-paying jobs as itinerant grape pickers, landscapers and day laborers who stand no closer than 25 feet away from Home Depot where they wait for a lot more than 8 hours a day. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but until the mid 1960s when immigration laws were rewritten, only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were allowed to enter the "land of the free."

So I've been reading...immigration in Turkey is equally multi-layered. For 200 years people from the Balkans and Central Asia arrived in Turkey hoping to start a new better life. Most interesting to me is the fact that in 1492 when the Spanish Inquisition expelled Sephardim Jews, around 100,000 sought refuge in Turkey. (During WWII another 100,000 Jews fled German-occupied Europe and lived in Turkey before many re-settled in Palestine.) But in the 1960s and 1970s Turks left their country in droves, specifically for Germany since at the time Germany had a great need for temporary unskilled "guest workers." Remittances sent back to Turkey by those migrants have tremendously impacted the growth of Turkey's economy. Today, masses of people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia arrive, overwhelmingly in Istanbul, seeking asylum. But, immigration into Turkey is being curtailed, thus the number of transient and undocumented migrants is rising; emigration out of the country (a "brain drain") continues at a steady stream. With a population nearing 70 million (up from 13 million in the 1920s), and the pressure related to the country's desire to become a full member of the European Union, tension regarding immigration in and out of Turkey continues to increase. Many are demanding in depth reformation of immigration laws. Europe wants Turkey to align its practices with those of the EU. Turkey is at a crossroads: it has traditionally emphasized the need for a homogeneous national identity, but if it is to be part of the EU, it must change its laws to acknowledge ethnic and cultural diversity.

I won't go on and on, although it's quite amazing to see the clear parallels regarding immigration in the US and Turkey, and the ways "human nature" drives beliefs about who gets to be the outsider--and worse yet, how, consequently, legislation is made. Today, Thursday 28 June, on KQED's "Forum" Michael Krasny hosted a two hour special on immigration and what it means to be a citizen. Several callers, and one of the panelists, commented that it is a "pipe dream" to hope for global citizenship and the free flow of human beings any time soon. Sad.

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