December 27, 2010
Godges Pops Off with KAHI’s
Mary Jane Popp over Immigration
KNOWN FOR HER HIGH-OCTANE INTERVIEWS, Mary Jane Popp, host of the nationally syndicated radio show “PoppOff,” sparked a lively debate over immigration with author John Paul Godges in late December. Popp and Godges, author of Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century, nonetheless carved out a swath of common patriotic territory in favor of a clear and consistent path to citizenship.
Broadcasting from radio station KAHI AM 950 in Auburn, California, Popp asked Godges why immigrants today have “changed” from the way they were a century ago. “I don’t know if people are really as proud to be American as it was back then,” she said, invoking her ancestors who arrived from Romania around 1900.
“I think people are proud to be American,” Godges countered. “I think that’s one reason why people keep coming to this country. There was always a combination of reasons why people came. I think the biggest reason was to have the opportunity to make a better life for your family. That still is today the reason why most people who immigrate to this country do come. By and large, it is to make life better for those whom they love.”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Popp. “But here’s my hitch: When [our forefathers] came to this country, they wanted to be American.” Popp decried the use of hyphenated terms, such as Italian-American or African-American or Mexican-American. “You’re an American first!” she asserted. “We’re all Americans. I thought that’s what it was all about, right?”
“I completely agree that you’re an American first,” said Godges, who invoked his own father, an immigrant from Poland, as a role model. “My father changed his last name from Godzisz to Godges, because he wanted to make sure that all of his children would be recognized as true-blue Americans from their very first days of school in the 1950s and 1960s. He is the embodiment of what you’re talking about, of the people who came to this country and wanted to earn their citizenship. He enlisted in the Marine Corps, although he did not need to for his citizenship. He felt it behooved him, it was his duty as an immigrant to demonstrate that he was fully committed to this country, and so he enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in World War II in the South Pacific.”
Godges also cited the “evolution in thinking” that he has seen among immigrants in California since the “roiling statewide debate” over Proposition 187 in the 1990s, when he worked with the Latino, Armenian, and Russian immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Godges saw the effect of Proposition 187 most directly on his coworkers.
“This was beyond distressing,” Godges recalled. “This was transformative for them. I had one very close colleague and friend who said, ‘John, it finally made me realize I have to make a choice. I have to choose whether to be an American or a Mexican. I can’t have it both ways any longer.’ He realized that in order to make a positive difference in this country, he had to embrace full citizenship and become a full participant in the electoral process. Many people realized that to be a full American, they had to take responsibility for this country first and foremost and make it their primary source of allegiance.”
But Godges also identified two reasons why some immigrants today have a different perspective than that of his father. “One, the world has become a smaller place. It is not such a geographic dislocation for people even to cross an ocean to come to this country.
“The other variable,” he continued, is the “historical overlap between Latin America and the southwest United States. Whenever it has suited our needs as Americans in the southwest as well as the needs of immigrant laborers from south of the border, we have been more hospitable and inviting of them to come without necessarily offering a path to citizenship. So I would argue that in this particular case, in this corner of the country, we as Americans have been guilty of colluding with the Latin Americans in creating this pattern where we look the other way during good economic times when we need the cheap labor and then using them as scapegoats in bad economic times. It has been a different historical pattern completely than the European pattern of immigration.”
“I disagree with you on one thing,” Popp interjected. “We obviously need the labor here. There’s no doubt. We’re agricultural. Then they should get some kind of guest card. But make a decision whether you’re going to go fast track to being an American or if you want to stay Mexican and just have a card to come across and work. There’s gotta be a distinction between those two things.”
“I think we agree that we need to offer a clear path to citizenship,” Godges proposed.
“Yes, but don’t shove the people who’ve taken the time to be a citizen for the last 10 or 15 years aside and say, ‘Okay, because they’re workers here, we’re going to put them at the head of the line.’ That’s not right!”
“I agree with you there. It is unfair that we keep changing the rules.”
“We need to come up with one fair, clear path to citizenship and stick with it so that there is fairness and justice over time, from one generation to the next, for all.”
“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Popp shifted course. “It may sound a little bit brutal and cruel. But I want the best and brightest. I want the people who will advance this country.”
“Well, we also have to be fair regarding our own histories, Mary Jane,” Godges suggested. “There were a lot of people who came over in the massive immigrant waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were perfectly legal, but they were not necessarily ethical people. We carry these myths with us of the noble immigrants from the old country. Many of them were. Many of them, however, were not what I would call paragons of virtue.”
“Conversely, today, many immigrants happen to be illegal depending on our changing and shifting laws. They fall into a category that is easy to label and demonize as illegal. However, by and large, despite some exceptions to the rule, these are extremely virtuous, virtuous people who come with the same motivations to make lives better for their families and their communities. My bottom line is that anyone who contributes to this country and works hard deserves to be legal. And we need to make it available to anyone who contributes. Call them the best and the brightest. Call them the hardest working. Call them the most virtuous. Whoever they are, we want those people in this country!”
“And I don’t want drug dealers in this country to become legal.”
“Right, so let’s base it on people’s conduct and behavior, not on some legal accident.”
“I can’t feel sorry for somebody who is here illegally and not working toward being legal.”
“You don’t feel bad for people who are here illegally and who are not working to become legal,” Godges emphasized the conjunction. “I think that’s brilliant. I think that could be a very promising common ground for both sides of the immigration debate.”
Popp then asked Godges about his family memoir. “You’re trying to capture what your family and a lot of other families were like in the 20th century, right?”
“That’s right,” he answered, noting how his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary prompted him to ponder his family’s life in America. “I started to see this pattern, generation after generation, that reflected something very central about the American experience and the American identity and society that we all deal with. It is this ongoing battle between the individual and the community, between clamoring for individual freedom on the one hand and yet clinging to community integrity and identity and continuity on the other.”
“But that’s what America’s all about,” said Popp.
“That is what America’s all about. So I wanted to tell that story within the context of one multi-generational family, from immigration through assimilation and beyond, and to portray how each individual reflects something larger about the society and country and how, in all of our peculiar differences, we can struggle to work through our conflicts with one another, because if we’re each going in our own individual ways, we’re bound to trip over each other.”
“Ooh, you bet.”
“But how do we strike a healthy balance between those opposing forces in our personal lives and in our social and national lives?”
“It sounds like a wonderful story! John, thank you so much for being with us. Keep up the good work. It’s a great story!”
The 23-minute KAHI interview can be heard in its entirety by pressing play below. The first 19 minutes focus on immigration. The last 4 minutes focus on the book.