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Just Imagine…Lessons from the Past

Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

They lost everything after a series of devastating crop losses. Ongoing drought led to total agricultural failure for many. The people had no choice but to seek a future elsewhere. That elsewhere was California.


As many as 400,000 refugees sought out new lives in California. They were farmers and farm workers who did the back breaking work that others did not want to do. At first they were welcomed as they contributed to the local economy. Their willingness to accept low wages helped make the local farm produce competitive.


As the nation experienced tough economic times, the refugees were less welcomed. Local residents complained that the refugees posed a health threat. Some locals complained that the migrants were consuming public resources that they were not entitled to. Many locals refused to believe that the migrants deserved to be there.


Police were dispatched to borders to keep them out. They formed what was called the “bum brigade.” Vigilantes also got involved in harassing the migrants. Life for the refugees became intolerable.


Americans are deeply divided over situations like that described above. “Protect our borders” is a familiar campaign slogan nowadays. Just imagine how we would feel if those refugees weren’t from outside the country, but from within the U.S. That was the case during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the situation describe above. The refugees were from the middle of the country, especially Oklahoma.


What if we allowed states to police their borders to regulate or block the migration of citizens from other states? The arguments used to bar “Okies” from entering California sound much like the arguments used today in our immigration policy disputes. They are the same arguments that were used against the Irish who were migrating to escape the potato famine of the mid-1800s. They are the same arguments that were used against the Italian and Eastern European migrants who came to America to work in the mines that produced the energy needed for a growing economy. They are the same arguments used against African Americans escaping the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration of the 1900s.


Just imagine learning from the past that we should welcome the stranger, the migrant, because we’ve always come out stronger for it. Those arguments used to bar people from seeking a better life have proven wrong over and over again. Where would our advanced technology industry be today if we had not allowed immigrants coming to America from all over the world? But we forget our past. Fear and prejudice always seem to win out when misinformation and appeals to social hierarchies become so prevalent in shaping and reinforcing our biases. How might we learn the lessons of the past?


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 “To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory.” – Tennessee Office for Refugees

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.