The tragedy that unfolded on Friday in an English class for immigrants at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., was horrifying and brutal. But along with the shock and sadness there is also an opportunity to see where we are as a nation, where we have come from, and where we may be going next in our long immigration history.
Binghamton is in mourning. On Sunday night 1,500 people gathered at a middle school in the small city in upstate New York to remember the victims of the massacre in which 14 people died, most of them immigrants. Local TV reports showed prayers being offered in several different languages, and a diverse crowd of mourners, standing together, holding candles outside the school on a cool April evening. More memorials are planned for later this week.
The victims came from around the world — Pakistan, Haiti, China, Brazil, the Philippines, Iraq, and the U.S. The gunman, 41-year-old Jiverly A. Wong, was Vietnamese.
We now know that Binghamton is a mirror of the nation. The city’s immigrant and refugee population –small compared to that of metropolises like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles– has grown in size and significance over the past 20 years. The mix of cultures, languages and religions represented by the victims of Friday’s tragedy can be found in any number of small cities and towns across the country from Siler City, N.C. to New Haven, Conn. to Manchester, N.H.
The path that immigrants take when they come to America has changed. Many now skip big cities completely and head straight to smaller communities. As a result, immigrants are woven into the fabric of U.S. society in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. Some communities like Binghamton celebrate diversity. The web site of Broome County, of which Binghamton is the county seat, contains these words: “Despite our rich business history, it has always been the story of our people –the thousands of immigrants and their distinct– heritage that have made this region a true melting pot.”
But events in smaller communities have also highlighted the difficulties facing immigrants, and the failure of the nation to reach a consensus on the role of immigrants in this country.
The 2008 raid at the Agriprocessors poultry processing plant in the tiny town of Postville, Iowa is one notable example. Federal agents arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants at the plant, many of whom were subsequently deported after brief legal proceedings. Postville has become for many an enduring symbol of government abuse and the failure of national immigration policy. The recent decision by the Obama administration to free undocumented workers arrested in a raid at a machine shop in Bellingham, Wash., has also become a symbol. It has raised hopes among many for broader immigration reform under the new president.
It is heartening to see immigrants and native-born Americans come together in Binghamton to honor the victims of the massacre. The spirit of unity following the tragedy, and the national outpouring of sympathy for the victims, raises the hope that Americans may be more willing than they have been in the past to face the challenge of fully embracing today’s immigrants.
Perhaps the shock of the Binghamton massacre can provide a lull in the immigration battles raging across the county. If this tragedy leads to a more constructive and civil debate over immigration policy, then those who lost their lives on Friday will not have died in vain.