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There are an awful lot of people who despise government precisely because it opened the door for common citizenship for people of all races and all natures… – Taylor Branch
Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. – Albert Einstein
The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250.
In the United States, in France, in Hungary, in many if not most of the world’s developed countries, a particularly hideous anti-immigrant, hardline ultra-nationalist sentiment keeps rearing its ugly head. Political candidates use it to get attention and get elected, with facile slogans that promise a return to past glory; policymakers try to exploit it by appealing to fear, jingoism and facile hyper-patriotism; exponents of national, ethnic or religious “identity” say more immigration will distort their “cultural values.” In my own personal experience, this kind of “keep the immigrants away from our borders” sentiment usually covers up thinly-disguised antipathy, prejudice, hatred and blatant racism.
Twenty one years ago, when the State of California was undergoing one of its occasional nativist upheavals, an anti-immigrant ballot proposition posed a question to the state’s voters: should we deny undocumented immigrants any and all state services?
Called Proposition 187, this non-partisan ballot measure suggested that the children of immigrants without official papers be kicked out of the state’s elementary, middle and high schools. It also mandated that California’s 1.3 million “illegal” immigrants could not access the state’s public and private health care system. The campaign’s standard explanation: we Americans just can’t afford these costs.
Because of my work in health care at the time, and because of my beliefs as a Baha’i, people I knew who ran the No on 187 campaign asked me to be their health care media spokesperson, and I agreed. I felt that Proposition 187 unfairly targeted Latinos and their families; set a prejudiced, xenophobic precedent; and generally fomented hatred and discrimination against a whole group of people just trying to better their lives in America. The ballot measure seemed cruel and backwards and mean-spirited and completely opposed to the spirit of unity I wanted to see in my state and the world.
Beyond that, the proposition intended to turn doctors and nurses into border enforcers, with the legal responsibility to determine every patient’s immigration status before they treated anyone. That’s an unfair burden, I thought, to put on any caregiver. The whole proposition, I felt, also amounted to public health lunacy. Everyone knows that germs don’t respect borders. If your child gets sick, wouldn’t you want to know that every child with that disease could access treatment, before the disease spread? Would you care whether those children had the correct immigration status?
So I agreed to serve as the spokesperson for the No on 187 campaign, and instantly got involved in a whirlwind of media activity—a constant stream over many months of television interviews, newspaper articles, public appearances and debates. On several occasions, I spoke at large, contentious news conferences, with dozens of TV cameras and millions of people watching. I often debated pro-187 advocates, including one particularly vehement state politician, whose off-camera remarks convinced me of his racism. At every opportunity he said he virulently hated immigrants, who he always called “aliens,” as if they had arrived from outer space. He admitted that fact publicly more than once, but I soon learned that he didn’t seem to mind Canadian or European immigrants—it was only the dark-skinned ones he despised.
This experience—debating the issues for many months—really opened my eyes. Because I’m a Baha’i, I spend much of my time around other Baha’is, who believe in the oneness of humanity and the elimination of all forms of prejudice. As a result, I’m not often around haters, and I’m not inured to blatant, vicious racism. Of course I fully understand that everything from unspoken bias to outright racist behavior exists, but I had little idea, especially in the supposedly progressive state of California, that it could go so far and so deep. I began to believe it, though, when I started to get death threats.
The first one came over the phone at my office. It went like this: You’re a traitor to the white race. We will kill you and your family.
Initially, I thought it was just a prank, and laughed it off. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that gruff voice didn’t sound like a prankster at all—he sounded dead serious. Then, over the next few weeks, the calls continued, and I began to get written letters, as well. Some of them were chilling, clearly malignant and filled with vitriol and hate. This kind of targeted intimidation works on your mind. I admit I started to actually wonder if I was putting my wife and children at risk.
Ultimately, though, after thinking it over and praying about it, I decided to ignore them. When the hate notes multiplied and nothing happened, I deleted the voicemail messages and threw away the letters. Friends said I should call the FBI, get their hate crimes unit involved, at least contact the local police. I suspected that law enforcement wouldn’t be able to do much; and that if I did get them involved I would be doing exactly what these mental terrorists wanted me to do—give in a little to their cowardly fear tactics, spend more of my time worrying about them and less on the campaign, and maybe even mute my public positions on the ballot initiative.
Luckily, the people who threatened me and my family never did anything more.
But despite our efforts, Proposition 187 won by a 3-to-2 margin—it passed with 59% of the vote. Luckily, a courageous woman, a Federal judge named Mariana Pfaelzer, soon rejected the proposition as unconstitutional before it ever went into effect. Pfaelzer, born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents, told me she also received multiple death threats after her court decision. Judge Pfaelzer died peacefully, at the age of 89, earlier this year.
Today, the prestigious Field Poll released the results of a new opinion survey here in California, which found that 58% of registered California voters now support extending the state’s free and low-cost medical services to undocumented immigrants. That change in attitude makes me happy, and leads me to this conclusion: in two decades, we’re starting to make some progress toward actually understanding Baha’u’llah’s primary principle: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”