Weeds: It’s all about people

Sometimes kids sure know how to ruin our fun.

Soon after hitting 65 on the age-ometer, I got my first dose of COVID vaccine. That prick in my left arm meant the beginning of the end of My Pandemic Year. I could anticipate a day when I have a beer uptown without any thought of regional transmission rates. Maybe I’ll hug the bartender.

I was feeling pretty good about myself. I dialed up daughter Abby to share my celebration.

Abby is working in Guatemala for an international organization in human rights. She has lately been travelling the towns and villages of rural Guatemala with a team. My news led to a discussion of the COVID vaccination on a wider scale than Brown County. That’s a benefit of a daughter working out of the country. She pushes my thinking beyond our line fence.

I was aware that no vaccines have been sent to third world countries. That’s an abstract concept. Then Abby pointed out that there was concern among Guatemala’s indigenous tribes that the virus could kill off an older generation. Those are the ones preserving their language and customs. If they died before transferring these to a younger generation, an entire culture would be at risk.

I imagined a peer in a mountain village in Central America, an old guy who farmed his whole life. It was a reach. He wouldn’t have a fleet of tractors to work his fields. More likely, some hand tools. He wouldn’t own a farm, since a small ultra-rich class owns all the productive land in Guatemala. But he probably loves his family and enjoys a hug from his grandchild same as me.

As I thought of him, and how vulnerable to this virus he would be for months, maybe years, my own celebration balloon deflated a bit. I said to Abby I would have given that man my shot if I could. Of course, I couldn’t. So it was easy to say.

Why do I have access to this possibly lifesaving shot and my fellow farmer in a village in Guatemala won’t for a long time? It’s complicated.

The older I get the more complicated things appear. I joke that I was smarter when I was young and thought I knew everything. Black and white is gray now. I like simple answers as much as the next person; they’re just not usually right answers.

When you start balancing the rights and needs of one group of people against another, it starts to look more like one of those 32-sided dice than a flat object with two sides. When you add in the generations that it took to get here and project ahead to generations to come, the dice has even more sides.

I wrote once about the disparity among people. I suggested that it was random luck that I was born a white male in a wealthy nation. Someone told me that was bad theology, that it was part of God’s plan. If so, I assume God means for me to darn well spend some of my time here trying to improve the life of the poor indigent dark-skinned person who was born into much less privilege.

My conversation with Abby led to another “It’s complicated.”

Abby described driving through a village. Like most in Central America, this was extremely impoverished. Most families live in shacks, tin nailed on spare wood, tarps covering openings. There is not a safe water supply, so infant diarrhea often leads to death. For those making it to adulthood, life expectancy is short. Cooking and heating are done by open wood fires. Poor ventilation means lung damage is common. Nutrition is poor. These are among the billion people we share this planet with who are chronically undernourished.

Abby noticed a small number of homes that are a step up, cement block homes that at least give decent shelter. They had windows and doors. They wouldn’t be anything to brag about in Sleepy Eye or New Ulm; they’d be in our worst parts of town. But they were above the shacks most families lived in.

Abby asked one of the locals as they were driving how these few better homes came to be. It turned out they were the homes of families where someone had been fortunate enough to make it to the United States.

That person, once in our country, found the lowliest job, the hardest work at the poorest pay. These are the jobs that most Americans don’t want. It’s important work, but work that is undervalued. Minimum wage (or less) earned while picking fruit or working in a nursing home, allows you to send a small amount of money back to your family in Guatemala.

That’s enough to move out of squalor. Enough to perhaps save the life of an infant, educate a child, or prolong the life of an elder. Should we care? I hope so. These, right there, are the least of our brothers.

It’s complicated. Immigration is complicated. We’re finding that out again. But please. Let’s agree on two things. First, no one is for open borders. We’ve been told repeatedly that one party is for open borders. Reasonable, sensible, and humane immigration policy is not open borders.

Can we also agree that we’re talking about human beings?

We spent the last four years hearing those seeking refuge spoken of in dehumanizing words: hordes, rapists, terrorists. At least those refer to types of people. “Catch and release” implies some animal. It was a strategy to make us fear and despise those people. The overwhelming majority of whom are desperate and vulnerable.

I don’t blame the former president. He is unintelligent and incurious about everything except himself. If he had found advocating for the expulsion of kittens led to cheering crowds stroking his ego, he would have. He is in an empty vessel. Unfortunately, a horrible gruel was poured into that by some awful people who surrounded him. Our nation’s refugee and legitimate immigration policies were gutted. Every conceivable way to demean and strip migrants of their dignity was used.

Until four years ago, our nation’s immigration policies were largely nonpartisan. Republican and Democrat administrations alike knew “it’s complicated.” Both knew we bear responsibilities as a wealthy nation. There was also acceptance that humanity and compassion were essential. Ronald Reagan may have been the most pro-immigration president we’ve had.

I found this quote by journalist Jonathan Blitzer who has reported from Guatemala: “The issues involved in immigration are nearly impossible to settle as long as policymakers regard decency as a political weakness rather than as a moral strength.” It’s complicated, but we can and will do better.


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