I have to confess I've never really cared about the Olympics. Since I'm not much for sports or raw nationalism, the fusion of the two doesn't really get me up in the morning. But I will tune in tonight to watch Lopez Lamong -- Sudanese "Lost Boy" turned US track star -- carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies. I'm sure I'll have a tear in my eye, but also a twinge in my stomach for the profound irony of the moment. Some might even call it hypocrisy.
For here we are in the United States, where though the price of gas is skyrocketing, there seems to be endless fuel to feed the fires of anti-immigrant sentiment. But the Olympics are different, I guess. Is it the same with professional sports? Or the governorship of California? We don't like immigrants in low-wage jobs that none of us citizens want to do, but we don't mind immigrants in the exceptionally high-paying jobs that American-born citizens can only dream of?
What's the point complaining about an undocumented Mexican making $5 an hour in a chicken processing plant, who lost two of his fingers because of unsafe conditions and labor violations? Shouldn't we be more upset about Yao Ming making $15 million a year, plus endorsements?
Ah, but in America, we have a long and proud tradition of picking on the little guy. We also have a proud tradition of taking half-hearted moral stands. (Remember the Southern Compromise, anyone? Our continuing tolerance of segregation after abolition? Or the Bush Administration's rejection of nation-building...?) Why bother standing up for what's right when we can just talk about what we know is right but then just keep doing what we've always done.
Of course I don't want the anti-immigrant hate spewers to wizen up to their inconsistencies and expel the 33 immigrants on the US Olympic team this year, let alone a vast number of our nation's doctors, nurses, engineers -- and one governor. But on the other hand, it would be refreshing if the anti-immigrant fanatics would just level with us -- and chant "Run home immigrant" at Lopez Lamong during his 1500 meter dash, as opposed to just chanting at the far less fortunate and far more desperate undocumented migrants who are just trying to get to work to make a day's pay. After all, factory workers and maids and farmworkers are easy targets. Let's see the anti-immigrant folks really test their theories and tirades by attacking people Americans really care about.
Because while Lou Dobbs and others will say it's just undocumented immigrants they mean to attack, it's not true. Accusations against undocumented immigrants also stick to legal immigrants and naturalized citizens, especially those from Latin America -- because we don't make much distinction between undocumented Latino immigrants working crappy jobs for crappy wages and permanent resident or naturalized Latino immigrants working crappy jobs for crappy wages. When Pat Buchanan says on Fox News, "You've got a wholesale invasion, the greatest invasion in human history, coming across your southern border, changing the composition and character of your country," he's not exactly distinguishing, is he?
And attacks against undocumented immigrants promote attacks against all immigrants. Recall after September 11th how Bush Administration rhetoric against "Muslim terrorists" led to a rise in hate crimes against Muslim and Arab gas station attendants, taxi cab drivers and other law-abiding immigrants and citizens. Lopez Lamong and Yao Ming had better stay alert.
In our two-tiered America -- with a persistent and wide gulf between the rich and the poor, those with power and those who are struggling, those who have every opportunity in life and those who have none -- is it any wonder we have a two-tiered take on immigration? In an America where we forgive Lindsay Lohan for repeated cocaine abuse but throw the book at poor African American men for even the most minor offenses, in an America where we give huge tax breaks to Wal-Mart and Exxon but refuse to raise funding for food stamps, is it any wonder we attack low-wage undocumented workers at the bottom of our society while celebrating immigrant athletes at the top?
You might be thinking, "But Lopez Lamong had a talent. He was a gifted runner and because of that our country rescued him from the violence and poverty of the Sudan." That's right. We're America. We give everyone a chance. Tonight we'll be celebrating what Lamong made of his opportunity. But let's not forget all the immigrants that we're denying an opportunity to.