Saturday, February 18, 2017

This Land Is Our Land: Right Book at the Right Time

I read fourteen books for my job as a Round 2 judge for the Cybils award.  Last year I did the same job in the YA contemporary category, and we read maybe six books.  But the nonfiction judges read both MG and YA, and there were seven finalists in each.  I really liked eight of them, and I certainly understand why all of them made the cut, even if they weren't for me.

The last book I read (which was determined almost entirely by the order my library was able to track them down for me) is This Land Is Our Land, a Middle Grade title by Linda Barrett Osborne.  I think that in normal times, I would have found it mildly interesting.  But in the current climate, I found it provocative and important, a book I want to buy for my classroom library and press into the hands of everyone I meet.

This is a book about the U.S.'s history with immigration.  Each chapter deals with a chunk of time, and in carefully researched and well presented detail, explains how both laws and attitudes changed over time, yet remained essentially the same.  (Early on, the author also points out that African American "immigration," being one of forced removal from their home, is a whole different story.)

The author clearly has a point of view, one she supports with examples and illustrations.  She sets the tone early on, pointing out that historically, "Race was not just about looking different; it was about feeling superior to other groups of human beings." (pg. 9).  What does she mean by this?  Well, it turns out that Benjamin Franklin wrote "In Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes are generally what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also" (pg. 9).  I already knew that there was skin-tone based racism against Italians and Spaniards, but who the hell calls Swedes and Germans people of color?  Oh right, one of our founding fathers.  The mental gymnastics here--whites are better than people of color; I am better than Swedes; therefore Swedes are people of color--is horrifying.

A lot of the basic information is already familiar to the adult reader, and a lot of her thoughts that relate to the current debate over immigration are things I've long believed as well.  She emphasizes the fact that many white American's ancestors came before quotas were set up, and came primarily for economic reasons, implying that it's hypocritical to say things like "People should follow the rules like my ancestors did" or "You have to PROVE you are in HUGE DANGER to be let in as a refugee."

My great-great grandparents sent this picture to their daughter after she immigrated from Lithuania.  Clearly, my ancestors were peasants in search of a better life.

She included some details about the quota laws that I wasn't familiar with--for example, she talks about the general quotas from Asia, not just the ones pertaining to Chinese.  For decades, Asians could not become citizens by any means other than birth, so restrictions were placed stating that nobody who couldn't eventually become a citizen could immigrate--virtually shutting out Asians without ever saying so directly.  There was a lack of quotas from our continent until relatively recently (post WWII), so both Canadians and Mexicans could immigrate at will.

The race-based national quotas of the 1920s are what most of us are at least dimly aware of.  After World War Two, the McCarran-Walter Act was passed, maintaining national quotas.   When Harry Truman vetoed the act, stating that "The basis of this quota system was false and unworthy in 1924.  It is even worse now...It is incredible to me that, in this year of 1952, we should again be enacting into law such a slur on the patriotism, the capacity, and the decency of a large part of our citizenry."  (pg. 91), Congress overruled the veto.

I kind of want to get Truman's words on a t-shirt.

In 1965 national quotas were replaced by hemisphere quotas, with a higher cap on Western (New World) immigrants than on Eastern (Old World) immigrants.  In 1976, that quota was ended, replaced by a general cap of 290,000 legal immigrants per year.

Osborne brings us into the current century, if not quite up to the Muslim Ban and the proposed wall on the Mexican border, stating that in 2010, 58% of undocumented immigrants were Mexican.  Nearly 7,500 people were caught that year trying to cross from Canada, including boat, Jet Ski, and swimming to MI, NY and MN.  In 2011 "more suspected terrorists were caught trying to enter the US through Canada than through Mexico, according to the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol Agency.  Yet most Americans are far more concerned with undocumented Latin American immigrants than with those from other countries."  (pg. 100)  In a post-truth world, does it matter? (Rhetorical question.  Of course it matters.)

Osborne was preaching to the choir in this case.  My father immigrated from Canada as a teen and became a naturalized citizen after he'd married and had his first child.  His parents had both immigrated from Scotland.  My mother's father came from Lithuania as a babe in arms.  The remaining branch of the family has been here for centuries, but even they were immigrants once, uninvited and without any particular paperwork.  I've worked for decades with immigrant students, some with and some without documentation.  The struggles people go through to get to our country, the grief they feel at leaving their home, the hope they have for the success of their children--I simply don't understand how you reject them and criminalize their behavior.   Osborne uses facts, data, and quotes from key thinkers throughout our history to come to the same conclusions I've reached on emotions alone.


  1. This sounds like an important book. Most of my ancestors were Russian immigrants. They came to the US for economic reasons or because Stalin was trying to murder them. They didn’t want to starve or get killed. I’m betting that a lot of immigrants today come to the US for similar reasons.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. Just added it to my TBR. Thanks!

  3. This book does seem very apropos in our current political climate. Sounds like very worthy reading indeed.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  4. Amen, sister. This sounds like a timely book.


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