The elderly white man sat across the restaurant booth from his wife. They were discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to rescind elements of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law. “So you see,” he told her, “I think it’s a terrible shame that Obama’s getting rid of this Arizona law. Why won’t they let the police just do their job?”
His wife nodded her head. I paused mid-bite and looked up over my chicken sandwich. I could sense a xenophobic rant brewing, could smell it like the cheap coffee that was brewing behind the counter. I felt my appetite slowly drain out of me. Other customers pretended not to hear the man. He continued, his face growing noticeably redder. “It’s like, if an officer stops someone and tells them, ‘I need to see your license and registration’, and the person just sits there and goes, ‘uh, no comprendo, no comprendo,’ then the officer knows he’s got a problem on his hands.”
As the elderly customer repeated the Spanish phrase—which he pronounced more like “noah cum-prenn-doe”—he waved his hands in cartoonish fashion and raised his eyebrows comically. The man’s wife giggled at his impersonation, fiddling with her box of chicken nuggets. “I mean, if they can’t speak English,” he continued, “they have no business being in this country. So if a police officer is trying to talk to the person, and they just keep saying, ‘noah cum-prenn-doe,’ well then you know they’re not supposed to be here. It’s time to call up I.C.E. and have them come deport the person. What’s so complicated about that?”
I leaned back against the hard plastic seat and looked up at the ceiling. I considered saying something. But where to start? I wasn’t surprised that he seemed ignorant of the details of the Supreme Court’s decision. After all, while they did shoot down three of the law’s provisions, they upheld the most controversial one—the “show me your papers” clause, which allows police to stop “suspected immigrants” [read: Latinos] and demand their documents. The clause makes Latinos in Arizona, de facto, “guilty until proven innocent” of being undocumented immigrants even though Latino U.S. citizens greatly outnumber undocumented immigrants in Arizona, and many of the state’s Latino families have lived there for several generations.
But it didn’t surprise me that the man would take a “glass-is-half-empty” approach to the Supreme Court’s ruling. After all, I would venture to guess that even if the “Arizona Law” had been upheld in its entirety, not even that would be enough to make the old fellow happy. I wasn’t surprised, either, by his comment about the “police not being able to do their job”—that he was ignorant of what the police’s job is in the first place. Many people, after all, seem to assume that the police are supposed to act as immigration agents—but this isn’t the case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is a completely different government agency from the police. I.C.E. prosecutes violations of immigration law (a civil, not criminal, offense); the municipal, state and federal police prosecute violations of criminal law.
This is the way law enforcement works in any nation on earth. Nobody is trying to keep the police from doing their job. In fact, in areas like Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County where police have been pushed into enforcing immigration law, the rates of rape, murder and other violent crimes have gone up—precisely because the police aren’t able to do their job as effectively. It is not the police’s job to check people’s immigration status in the first place—any more than it is their job to put out fires, deliver people’s mail, process tax returns, or make Social Security payments to people like the elderly man in the restaurant.
But it didn’t surprise me that this man was ignorant of the way his government works. What surprised me was that he was so ignorant of himself. Of his own roots. Of the roots of all Americans of European descent. Being a white American myself, I was surprised that this man seemed completely unaware of where his own ancestors came from. The fact is, nearly all first generation immigrants have come here knowing little to no English. Just like my own great-grandparents who gave me the Schmidt name, this man’s ancestors likely didn’t know English when they came here. If a police officer had stopped them, they would have responded with some other version of “no comprendo:”
“Ich kann nicht verstehen.”
“Я не понимаю.”
“Ikh farshtey nisht.”
To equate ignorance of English with undocumented status is ludicrous. It makes little sense, if you really are speaking in terms of “legal versus illegal immigration.” But it makes much more sense if you’re speaking in terms of what demographics, what sorts of people, you believe “have no business being here.” I’m sure the man in the restaurant would have insisted, if I’d asked him, that he “was only against illegal immigration.” But his own words betrayed him. Through the comments he made, he stepped in line with past generations of xenophobes and immigrant bashers throughout American history. The sort of “native born” folk who, in centuries past, would have overheard his ancestors speaking a European language and said:
“They have no business being here.”
“This country’s not for people like them.”
“This is an invasion.”
As I heard the man rail against today’s immigrants, I also lamented my own ignorance of my great-grandparents’ lives. I regretted having never had the chance to meet them as an adult and talk with them about their own immigrant experience. Had they ever had a negative encounter with an “English only” American? I doubt it—after all, they spent most of their lives in an ethnic enclave, living among other German-speaking folks from Russia. By the time my grandfather and his siblings were grown, they had learned English in the public school system. (This puts the Schmidts well behind the curve, in comparison with today’s immigrants. Modern-day immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere are learning English at rates much faster than past generations.)
I had finally geared up to say something to the man—but someone else beat me to it. As I started to rise from my seat, a young customer had already approached the elderly man. “Listen, sir,” he told the nativist, “If you don’t want to sympathize with people who come from a different background, if you want to look down on them because they weren’t born here like you, that’s your problem. But keep your voice down. I don’t need to hear your intolerant rant while I’m eating. Nobody should have to.”
Short. Precise. To the point. The old man sheepishly looked down at his waffle fries. I thanked this young interloper for speaking up, and told the old man, “He’s absolutely right. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I don’t think either of us changed the xenophobe’s opinion. If anything, he probably became more entrenched in his views. As he and his wife left, murmuring under his breath, he was likely complaining to her about how “intolerant” today’s young people are, because we don’t tolerate intolerance. I don’t think we made him think about his roots, or his own European ancestors, or the mistreatment that some of them doubtless suffered. I don’t think he pondered the fact that past generations of Americans probably thought some of his ancestors “had no business being here” because of their language and customs.
But that’s not why you speak up when someone is going on a “noah-cum-prenn-doe” rant. You speak up because this is the present day. You speak up because now, in the 21st century, this should not be a nation where someone is intimidated and treated like a lesser person because of how they look and talk. You speak up because that’s not the kind of country we want to live in. And you speak up—I spoke up—because while I may be powerless to keep police from racially profiling someone in Arizona, I can at least stop one man from publicly mocking people of another culture.
It’s a start.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a volunteer at World Relief Garden Grove, proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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