The Inspiring Face of Immigration

By Heather Gray

In that much of the discussion in the recent political debates appears to be about immigration I thought I would offer a positive perspective on the issue. I have been witness to it throughout the world and originally wrote this article in 2006, but it is relevant today – there are some universal truths here. The intersection of different cultures can most definitely be inspiring and beneficial for us all.

The United States and Australia, like most western countries, benefit from immigration, but the United States in particular often can’t see beyond its own intolerance to understand this. It does so at its peril.

Immigration in Australia

After World War II Australia began to rapidly increase its immigrant population. It’s growing industries needed laborers. For some reason Australians seem to think they are located somewhere close to the European continent rather than in the Pacific Ocean and within a few miles of the highly populated Asia. So, Australia appealed to European laborers and many were paid for their relocation. Italians, Yugoslavs, Turks, Portuguese, Scots, Greeks and others “officially” made their way into the coal mines, steel mills and other Australian laboring jobs. While I was in Australia in the late 60’s and early 70’s these migrants were transforming Australian culture.

Of course Australia, like other British Commonwealth countries, has a history of excessive racism. Those of us of European descent, regardless of where we might live, are usually arrogantly obsessed with ourselves. The official “white Australia policy” allowed Caucasians “only” to migrate to Australia.

Robert Tierney writes in Class and Class Conflict in Australia (1996) “Ours is a traditionally racist society. The second half of the 19th century witnessed intense conflicts between European workers and non-white immigrants, particularly the Chinese and Kanaka.” Anti-Chinese legislation in Australia started appearing in the 1850s and 1880s. In 1893 New South Wales Premier Dibbs introduced a Bill which extended the provisions of Chinese exclusion to ‘all the colored persons on earth’. In 1901 the first Federal Government of Australia promulgated the Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the White Australia Policy.”

Tierney says that the White Australia Policy was supported by “political parties, the media, the church, the official union movement and the employers, with the exception of those who exploited immigrants as cheap labor in the 1800s”. “Non-whites,” says Tierney, “were commonly regarded as ‘immoral’ and ‘inferior’.” These attitudes are parallel to the United States now and in the past to be sure.

The White Australia Policy remained in place until the early 1970’s when the Labor Party’s Gough Whitlam government introduced a “non-discriminatory” immigration policy. Unlike previous Australian Prime Ministers, Whitlam was not blind to the fact that Australia’s neighbors were, in fact, Asian. As a result, thousands of Southeast Asians and others have since flocked to the Australian shores.

However, from 1901 to the end of World War II, most migrants to Australia were British and Irish, and the next largest groups were Italians and Greeks. After the Second World War and up to the early 1970’s and beyond, vast numbers of southern European immigrants arrived ‘down under.’ Some thought they were coming to “Austria”, only to find themselves half-way around the world in “Australia”.

It’s important to realize that for generations, most Australians had been isolated from on-going exposure to different cultures. Australian men had been in the world wars, but beyond that the worldview of most Australians was severely constricted. Anyone or anything different was viewed with suspicion. Not unlike the southern United States in most of its history, Australia was a “closed society”.

In the late 1960’s and in the 1970’s I lived in Melbourne and Wollongong, Australia. It was a period of intense introspection on the part of Australians. Much of the debate in the media focused on Australian identity. The questions posed were “who are we and what are we as Australians? Are we European? Are we Asian? ” I don’t suppose these questions have ever been adequately resolved.

I do know, however, that with the vast numbers of southern Europeans migrating to Australia, there was a transformation taking place. The “Aussies” were engaging in their usual name-calling and finger pointing at the migrants and complaining at their lack of “assimilation” and “integration” into Australian society, as well as their strange languages and customs. Simultaneously, however, many Australians were climbing out of their shell. These migrants were introducing Australians to a whole new and exciting world.

To describe what was happening at the time is difficult. In some ways it was almost non-tangible, yet expressed daily in practical ways. Melbourne was experiencing an excitement and experimentation with newly discovered Italian and Greek herbs and spices, new sauces, and all kinds of pasta. An interest in an abundance and variety of wines was taking hold. Eating fresh salads was introduced along with a vast array of different vegetables, peppers and fruits. New Italian restaurants in downtown Melbourne were the talk of the town. The Women’s Weekly was filled with recipes introducing herbs and spices never before thought of by Australian women. Anyone not familiar with typical English or Australian cuisine needs to realize that this was an incredible departure from the diet of fish & chips, beer, lamb chops & mint sauce, potatoes, pumpkin and meat pies.

“Wollongong” is an aboriginal term meaning “where land meets water.” Indeed, Wollongong is 50 miles south of Sydney on the Pacific coast with lovely beaches, an abundance of fish, prawns, and hills filled with coal. A city of 250,000 at the time, it was a paradise with vast resources. The Aborigines were nowhere to be seen. As with European invaders to North America, the English trespassers of Australia had blood on their hands. They had savagely killed and marginalized the indigenous Aborigines and forced the remaining ones into desolate areas of Australia.

Wollongong had its university, but the primary employer was Australian Iron & Steel and, of course, the coal mines. The steel mill was filled with migrant laborers. Many of the steel mill migrants worked excessively long hours ­ often two shifts in one day. Accidents at the mill were commonplace. The work was dangerous to put it mildly.

While in Wollongong, I was fortunate to assist in researching the migratory patterns of laboring steel workers for the Australian National University in Canberra – ­ Australia’s capitol city. It was fascinating work. I would go from house to house and spend hours talking with Yugoslavs, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Scots and others about their work and families. More than the research itself, I was fortunate to learn about and spend time with these workers and their families. Many migrant communities had their own cultural enclaves and held wedding celebrations and parties with smoked hogs in pits, dance and live music. Many of them, of course, also made their own wonderful sherries and wines.

The migrants were forever altering the Australian landscape and staking their claims on culture, worldview and the importance of family and community.

For scores of these migrants, the long hours worked was to make a living for their families and to send as much money back home as possible to their parents and other family members not in Australia. This was a priority. Like the so-called “illegals” in the United States and other migrants today, family values and assisting family members back home, as well as their own nuclear family, took precedence over virtually anything else. While changing, this is still the responsibility of male children in most societies. I recall how my father in the 1950’s would send money from Atlanta in the U.S. to his mother, my grandmother, in western Canada to help her with rent and general living expenses. Some in Georgia would now penalize or complain about my father and others for doing this.

Immigration in the United States

A similar transformation to what I witnessed in Australia is now taking place in the southern United States and opportunities are opening up across the region. The South and Central Americans, Asian and African communities in the southeast are providing enormous opportunities and markets for tens of thousands. People in the southeast are now eating and cooking in ways they would never dreamed of just 15 years ago.

On the market and production side, both black and white, as well as small to large, farmers in the south had been finding labor a major problem, and our neighbors from across the border have been helping considerably to resolve this. Some U.S. farmers began learning Spanish to help not only to converse with laborers, but to access new markets that are increasingly available. Goat, for example, is eaten by South and Central Americans, Africans and Asians. The meat goat market has expanded exponentially in the Southeast U.S. Farmers in Texas are growing corn to meet the taco and other demands for local Mexican consumer markets. Fresh herbs are being grown by women and male farmers in the region to appeal to all these new and growing additions to the southern palate. Farmers are now growing snow peas, varieties of chili peppers and other new vegetables to access the expanding migrant population. All of these are exciting new and productive markets.

The market opportunities and creativity resulting from this most recent influx of migrants south of the border seems endless.

Summary

In spite of all these benefits, Australians or Americans are, unfortunately, far from resolving the problem of “white supremacy” that hampers local market growth. As Greg Burns of “Rights Australia” wrote in December 2005, “Despite the fact that one in four Australians today were born overseas, this is a nation where intolerance and xenophobia often lurks just beneath the surface.” Intolerance and xenophobia are also great hallmarks of the United States and is often expressed openly as we are now witnessing with recent anti-immigrant debates in Congress and throughout the country. The targeted migrants Congress and others are complaining about, after all, are people of color.

We also need to realize that for the most part the concerns and well-being of family are motivational for the majority of workers in the world. It is also likely that all waves of migrants to the U.S. from the English, when they first arrived, to the Africans, the Irish, to the Germans, Mexicans, Italians, Asians, those from the Middle East and others were the same. They did every conceivable thing to help their families here and abroad. All of us in the world benefit from this goodwill. It is an important investment in the future socially, economically and diplomatically.

The selfish disdain expressed toward the present wave of Mexican and other South American migrants and those from the Middle East to the U.S. by politicians and others in the United States is not only immoral, it’s not practical. They also want to use religion as a criteria. Did they forget that among the first Europeans to the Americans shores were those seeking relief from religious intolerance in Europe? Rather than exploring ways of embracing migrants, they want to build walls and pass draconian laws to punish and isolate our migrant communities and thousands of us that work with them. U.S. politicians are shooting themselves in the foot and they might never recover if this continues. Next they might build a wall across the Canadian border, which the some Canadians would likely appreciate. Finally, they will have a way of keeping Americans out of Canada.

HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at hmcgray@earthlink.net

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