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click to enlarge ON THE JOB: In Arkansas, Latino men have the highest employment rate (81 percent) of any group.
  • ON THE JOB: In Arkansas, Latino men have the highest employment rate (81 percent) of any group.

My mother's family arrived in Arkansas on foot shortly after the Civil War. After returning from the war, my ancestor found his home destroyed near Charlotte, N.C., and, along with his family started walking west. They walked for two years, making a crop along the way and finally stopped in northern Pulaski County because it reminded them of the land around Charlotte.

There's no record, but I hope our dusty bunch got better treatment from their new neighbors than Arkansas's recent Latino immigrants are getting from some of theirs.

Rep. Rick Green, a Republican legislator from Van Buren, has made something of a career over the last year bashing immigrants. He has been joined by Rep. Jon Woods of Springdale and Sen. Ruth Whitaker of Cedarville, also Republicans, who complain that Arkansas is “lagging behind” other states in passing anti-immigrant laws.

The taxes being paid, the jobs being created, the work that is getting done, all argue against the immigrant bashers. But that really isn't their argument anyway. They are talking about people who are different from them. If this was 1960 they'd be talking about blacks. Truth is, if Arkansas suddenly got 150,000 new English residents, half of them without documents, the main complaints you'd hear would be about their cooking.

Advocates for rounding up and deporting all undocumented workers in Arkansas will usually add that they have nothing against legal immigrants. They just want these bad apples to get in line and wait their turn like everyone else. The problem is, for a working class Mexican with no family here and little money, there is no line. It does not exist. It's a myth. He could wait a hundred years and he is still not going to be admitted legally to the United States. He doesn't meet the criteria. Meanwhile, in order to avoid violating the visa regulations of the United States, he is expected sit back and passively watch his children become stunted by malnutrition and lack of health care and in some instances die. People who are willing to give up everything and gamble their lives on the prospect that somehow they can rescue themselves and their families from this bleakness are the kind of people we want here. They are a self-selecting group who refuse to settle for the hand that life has dealt them. They are the people who are going to work harder, sacrifice for their kids, seize opportunity and create wealth — if we will just get out of their way.

For most of history, Arkansawyers have played the role that we assign today to the Latino population. During the 1930's when many of our grandparents and great-grandparents had little to eat but mineral-rich Sebastian County clay, they joined the Okies and headed for California as penniless immigrants. There, many were rounded up by California State Police and National Guardsmen and put into camps or turned back into the desert at the Arizona border. Our people packed the Dixie Highway to Detroit and took the Chicago slaughterhouse jobs that today are performed by Spanish-speaking immigrants. We dishonor our own ancestors when we treat our new Latino neighbors with the contempt and disdain that was shown our own people in years past. Where is our memory?

And where is our Bible?

God, it turns out, has quite a bit to say about immigrants and Rep. Green and his ilk had better listen up. If they were reading their Bible instead of thumping it, they would know that Leviticus (19:33-34) says “When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

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