Oklahomans Should Remember Their Own Refugee Roots
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Politics and Activism

Let History Not Forget the Oklahoman Refugees

"They [Oklahomans] arrive in California usually having used up every resource to get here...they arrive bewildered and beaten and usually in a state of semi-starvation…" — John Steinbeck

Let History Not Forget the Oklahoman Refugees

Because of Oklahoma's standing as one of the most conservative states in the nation, Oklahomans are not always the most receptive to accepting refugees. While it's understandable that we can't take in every person in need, the most aggressive hard-line anti-immigration arguments are comprised of animosity towards the individual immigrants and refugees themselves, not the policy.

As a proud Okie, (the very term "Okie" originated as a derogatory term to insult Oklahomans) this has always baffled me because of our state's history. Most people are oblivious to the fact that less than one hundred years ago, 440,000 Oklahomans fled the state in the midst of the greatest economic, societal, and agricultural collapse in United States history— conditions strikingly similar to those present in countries across the world today.

John Steinbeck, author of "The Grapes of Wrath" wrote a series of articles for the San Francisco News titled "The Harvest Gypsies." Published in 1936, they describe from a Californian nativist perspective the plight of the roughly 2.5 million migrant laborers — hundreds of thousands of them Oklahoman—that were streaming into California in the 1930s:

"The drought in the middle wast has driven the agricultural populations of Oklahoma, Nebraska, and parts of Kansas and Texas westward. Thousands of them are crossing the borders in ancient rattling automobiles, destitute and hungry homeless, ready to accept any pay so that they may eat and feed their children."

Just as the economic circumstances of Oklahoma in 1936 mirror the economic conditions of many countries today, the attitude of many Californians toward migrant Oklahomans echoes the hardest nativist rhetoric of Oklahomans adamantly opposed to more progressive immigration policy. It's easy to forget our own history, but here is what many Californians believed about people who were fellow United States citizens. Again, Steinbeck:

"The migrants are hated for the following reasons, that they are ignorant and dirty people, that they are carriers of disease, that they increase the necessity for police and the tax bill for schooling..."

While there were Oklahomans who did commit crimes in California, the vast majority were simply in pursuit of a better life. It's an insult to all Oklahomans to be generalized, and it's morally repugnant to generalize immigrants today with the same prejudice. Studies have suggested that immigration may actually decrease crime. The story of the vast majority of today's asylum-seeking immigrants is the same as the Oklahomans who fled their home state. They're both the poorest of the poor and they're both fleeing unbearable conditions

I love my state, and I wear the "Okie" brand with pride as do so many others. Oklahomans are the strongest, kindest, caring people in the nation. However, I think as a state, we can commit to doing even better. We can commit to understanding our history and better empathizing with not only our ancestor's plights but the struggles of refugees everywhere because not too long ago, that was us.

By recognizing we can be better today, we can give tribute to the Oklahoman refugees that came before us. As Okies, our own history demands it.

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