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Ag-at-Large: No land to give away today, but refugees deserve humanity

The immigration news lately has been disheartening, considering the fact that the government tells us unemployment rates are low.

The United States needs immigrants to help the economy continue to grow, to provide workers and to fund the future Social Security payments for older Americans who have raised fewer children.

Rural America is a bastion of current Republican political support, where the most concern about immigration seems to exist. Concurrently, U.S. farmers and others tell us we need more laborers — people willing to do the sometimes uncomfortable labor that agriculture provides, at a price the market will bear and still provide a profit to management and resource ownership.

My own great-grandfather Jens Paulson arrived in the U.S. in 1904. After stops in northwest Iowa and Stickney, S.D., he made his way to the rural Philip, S.D., area, to a community called Hilland, S.D., in about 1907. It was not an easy life, but it offered better than what they left back home.

Historians tell us that the first Norwegian wave of immigration took place in the mid-1880s and included people who already had land or resources but were looking for something better. Kind of like the North Dakota farmers who transplanted parts of their farming enterprises into Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s.

Subsequent waves from Scandinavia in the late 1890s to the early 1900s were landless siblings who felt they could better themselves with the promise of 160 acres of free land available in the Homestead Act. Sometimes it was because of a weather- or disease-related crop failure, the inheriting farmer sometimes decided to take a different path while they still had some money.

In America, there was a scarcity of hired hands as the land — blatantly taken from "conquered" and cheated Native American tribes. Those tribes were deemed to have neither skills or attitude that was wanted by the government. (Think Wounded Knee massacre, 1890, Wounded Knee Creek, S.D.)

It's tempting to think immigration was a more orderly system in the old days.

I thought about this as I read an article from The Guardian, the British media outlet. The article talked about 50,000 "colonists" encamped in tents at Bonesteel, S.D., in 1904, waiting for public lands to become available in northwest Nebraska. Bonesteel was established in 1902 and named for H.E. Bonesteel, a freight forwarder. Today it is a town of about 275 people, about an hour and a half west of Yankton, S.D., and west of the Missouri River.

The "horde" included "all classes and both sexes" trying to get "virgin" land, for $1 an acre, and would immediately double and triple in value. Some of the women were "unattended" by men, and had circled their tents into a protective ring, including high wire, to protect them. A bugle blast by a U.S. trooper sent the mass, spreading across the border to settle in Nebraska.

Today, the government's message to immigrants is different at the Mexican border. There is no land to give away, but I am convinced we need more of them, at all ends of the socioeconomic scale.

I know most of our congressional members, and think they all know this. All of them — Republicans and Democrats — have hearts and heads for public service. I would ask that just now they make immigration policy a top priority — to understand and intervene in the forces that are bringing immigrants to the U.S. border. I would ask that they personally discern how to use their political muscle for a better immigration policy. In the short term, I would ask them to see the children at the border as innocent and worthy of respect and safety.

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