In 1830-1831, our nation committed an atrocity against Native Americans known today as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee, Seminole and Chickasaw Indians were uprooted from their homes in the Southeast U.S. and forced to move to areas beyond the Mississippi River. Thousands died along the way.
It must be noted that these tribes were not engaged in acts of rebellion or violence. To the contrary, they were striving to make a place for themselves within the context of our laws and culture. But white settlers coveted their land and that was that.
Today, we face a similar issue as we struggle with immigration reform. An estimated 11 million people are today living in the U.S. illegally. Many of them were actually born here but their parents came illegally and so even their status is under a cloud. President Obama is endeavoring to provide many of them legal status via executive order, an action which many in Congress regard as illegal or at least beyond traditional executive branch authority.
This issue has been festering a long time. Everyone agrees we need immigration reform but there is much disagreement about what that reform should look like. The Senate actually passed legislation, but the House declined to take it up. The issue is a volatile one because more conservative elements such as the Tea Party oppose any opportunity for illegal aliens to gain resident status or citizenship.
On one level, I sympathize with the conservative view. It can make us older folks like me uncomfortable to share public places with people conversing in foreign tongues (even though I do speak some Spanish). Without question, the flood of unskilled labor from Mexico and Central American countries imposes serious burdens on our public assistance programs. And also there is the question of simple legality -- should we reward people who come here illegally? And if we did, would that open the floodgates to even more undocumented immigration?
But at the same time we must keep in mind that 11 million people is a sea of humanity living among us -- friends and neighbors. The unskilled laborers from south of the border gladly assume a host of difficult, low-paying jobs that few Americans will take. They are by and large hungry for the American way of life. A disproportionate number of them serve in our armed forces and often distinguish themselves for their courage and sacrifice. We may grumble and resent them sometimes, but like it or not they are part of the fabric of American life.
We are caught between a rock and a hard place. To deport 11 million people would make the Trail of Tears look like a Sunday picnic. We are not capable of such cruelty today. We must find a way to give them hope for a fair shot at U.S. citizenship. There is no viable alternative.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.