Groceries, Immigrants, Presidents
His arm reached deep into the brown double bag, creating just
the right space at the bottom for the next heavy item. We watched
with joy the speed and accuracy of the lean, middle-aged man placing
our purchases in the proper sequence, so as to protect the more
An increasingly rare phenomenon in our time.
In 1959, after my arrival in Florida as a twenty-two year-old refugee,
supermarkets - and everything about them - were among the unforgettable
first impressions. Apart from the sheer quantity of food, the attention
paid to packaging boggled the European mind. As well as performing
a service to customers, the insistence on care and precision seemed
also to provide important early training for the mostly high-school
age youngsters who did the bagging. Later, they would need to comply
with similar standards in all walks of life.
Florida's then governor, as related to me by an elderly professor
at Florida State University, used to bag and deliver groceries in
his teens. That, and the exclusively American attitude of expecting
children of privilege to work in their teens regardless, also sent
a splendid message to newcomers. Immigrants who, more often than
not, had arrived from countries in which just getting by was the
standard, could learn all about American requirements through bagging
Not any more.
America no longer requires of immigrants that they comply with
standards, or even take serious note of the laws and customs - not
to mention language - that have made America, well, America. Some,
perhaps many, still do, but the requirements are gone.
And last week, two political correspondents of National Review
have joined Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts in calling
for a constitutional amendment that would remove the requirement
whereby candidates for president and vice president of the United
States be native-born citizens.
The Founding Fathers presumably created the special requirement
because in other branches of government naturalized citizens were
likely outnumbered by native-born ones. We have nine justices of
the Supreme Court, one hundred senators, 435 members of the House
of Representatives. In addition, deliberations take place over time.
But all executive power is vested in a single, solitary person who
may have to act on a moment's notice. Such a person had better display
knee-jerk reactions typical of, and unique to, native-born Americans.
"And what of those who arrived here as infants?" advocates
of the proposed amendment ask. "What is the difference between
them and the native-born?"
Alas, laws are not made for the exception.
As if to answer the question, President Bush - inspired by his
recent visit to Ellis Island - is considering to grant legal resident
status to three million Mexicans who are in America unlawfully.
If he so decides, three million people whose first act was to break
the law, would end up eligible for the presidency. Since the Constitution
charges the president to "take care that the laws be faithfully
executed," even the most tolerant among us might perceive an
Tolerance is important, and native-born Americans possess a special
brand of it - so much so that my personal opposition to such an
amendment is based on the inability of most immigrants to acquire
it in their own lifetime, myself included. But the tendency is to
confuse wise and necessary legal provisions with an absence of tolerance
and generosity. "Why are you anti-immigrant," or: "Have
you got something against Mexicans?" are the silly questions
typically posed. This nation has prospered upon a solid foundation
of laws. We cannot afford to replace that with the quicksand of
sudden emotional impulses, or of temporary political manipulation.
How political - as opposed to thoughtfully considered - the issue
has become was demonstrated by The New York Times last Sunday. Not
long ago, the Times promoted the metamorphosis of illegal aliens
into "undocumented immigrants." Now, reporting the plan
under consideration in the Bush White House, its headlines refer
to the three million Mexicans as being in the country "illegally"
and "unlawfully." Of course, those millions would presumably
vote Republican if President Bush makes them legal. Were they instead
potential Democratic voters, the New York Times would surely avoid
such mean-spirited words.
America's need is to reclaim standards while some of us can still
remember them. Whether at the supermarket or in the legal system,
we will not prosper much longer if standards become permanently
Let us restore considerably higher levels of expectation - at the
check-out counter, and in government - before we think seriously
about amending the Supreme Law of the Land.