Lessons From the Past

They had lost everything after a series of devastating crop losses. Drought had led to abject devastation. They 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 farm workers who did the back-breaking work that others did not want to do. At first, they were welcomed and they became contributors to the local economy. Their 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. The claim was made that they were consuming public resources that they were not entitled to. Locals refused to believe that they deserved to be there.

Police were dispatched to the borders to keep them out. They formed what was called the bum brigade. Vigilantes also became involved, and life for the refugees became intolerable.

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

Should states be allowed to police their borders from 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 used against the Irish suffering from the potato famine. And that was used against the Indians and Eastern Europeans coming to America to do the backbreaking mining work to produce the energy needed for a growing American economy. It was also the argument used against African Americans escaping the Jim Crow South as they moved north. Where would our advanced technology industry be today if we had not allowed immigrants coming to America from all over the world?

Those arguments used to bar people from seeking a better life have been proven wrong over and over again. But we forget our past. Fear and prejudice always seem to win out when money for misinformation becomes so prevalent in shaping and reinforcing our biases.

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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

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