On May 10, Utah made up for 150 years of historic neglect by honoring the Chinese, Irish and others who actually built the Transcontinental Railroad. Leland Stanford was nowhere to be found. The guests of honor at Promontory Point were ghosts from a heroic past.
To this Idahoan, the site itself was stunning, with the mountains still full of snow and the nearby lake mysteriously attractive. But the descendants of the Chinese made the weekend. Over many years, with abundant scholarship and two new books, they brought vividly to life a people exploited at the time. Our borders were closed to Chinese shortly after their unprecedented accomplishment.
That weekend, The Salt Lake Tribune published two related stories. In one, President Trump is imposing tariffs on virtually all imports from China, the country whose workmen had built that western section of the railroad. China is vying to displace the United States as Number One in the world, with much success. That’s what the negotiations are about.
How times have changed. We would not think of treating Chinese immigrants today as we treated them back then — not to mention the country they come from. Their students are sought after by our universities, for example. Yet Chinese are the same human beings now as then.
So, lest we repeat the sins of the past, who are the Chinese of today? Who are we treating as third class people? This leads to the second cluster of stories.
The president’s son in law, Jared Kushner, had just offered Congress a new immigration plan which would be “merit based,” admitting people with skills rather than those with relatives in the country. Presumably, we would exclude those of low-merit. Many in the Utah delegation gave Kushner’s plan high marks.
I’m writing from southern Idaho, where our largest industry, agriculture, would collapse without workers whose first language is Spanish. Dairy is our largest single agricultural product, and 85 percent of its workers are undocumented. Dairies are going out of business here because tariffs have been imposed against us but also because of a lack of workers.
So who would have “merit” to care for cows at Idaho dairies and is willing to do so? Answer: relatives of people already doing this work or people like them in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Yet many Hispanics live in the shadows and are treated like criminals at the border. They would seem to be the Chinese of our time.
As the Chinese came to California to escape the Taiping Civil War of 1850-64, which had killed millions in China, Hispanics are fleeing gang and civil warfare today that has killed a staggering 2.5 million Central Americans in this century. We have work for some of them. Not all, but many, many thousands. Overall, 32 percent of American crop production workers are Hispanic and most states need workers.
Similarly, refugees from the Bosnian War came to Idaho in the 1980s with next to nothing and no English. Thirty years later, Bosnians are leaders in our cheese plants and one of them, Jas Kudzalic, runs a very large Boise-based company, Bodybuilders Inc. Would a merit-based system have picked them out in advance?
The world’s largest yogurt plant is in Idaho. Chobani was built by an immigrant and employs many refugees. Would they have been judged meritorious?
The presidents of two of Idaho’s largest companies — Albertson’s, the grocery chain, and Micron, the nation’s largest computer memory chip maker, with a plant in Lehi — are Vivek Sankaran and Sanjay Mehrotra, respectively. Thirty years ago, would a merit-based system have selected Indians to lead American companies, as they are doing so frequently now?
What we know from research is that by the second generation, refugees are more productive than the native born, embarrassing as that may be, because of their drive to build a life. Poor people can succeed wildly and unpredictably.
Like so many who built the railroad, one of my ancestors fled the Irish Famine in 1849. When his leg was crushed falling off a roof in New York, he was hoisted onto a table and the leg severed by his uncle because no one could afford a doctor. One-legged John Murphy became a highly successful miner in Kansas and his family and mine started many successful businesses in Idaho.
Tribune readers know many stories like this. If Utah pioneers had been put through a merit-based system, who would have been admitted?
Congress has shamefully failed to modernize our immigration system for 20 years. Something must be done. Perhaps Kushner has opened the door. But immigration reform will not keep Central Americans from desperately seeking asylum in the United States. For that we must help Central America as we successfully helped Columbia end its drug wars. But that is a subject for another day.
Jerry Brady, Boise, is a former publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register.