Reflections on Immigration

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reflections on Immigration

The immigration stories in my own family have had a very profound influence on my views of immigration. Here are just a few:

  • My grandmother's Norweigan father came to the US in the early 1920s. The family lore goes that whenever someone asked my great-grandfather how he came to America he'd tell one of two stories-- how he had stowed away on a Norweigan Army ship or that he swam. In other words, no one knows really how he got here except that we do know that he came alone and that he didn't come via official, documented channels. He did claim he came here to seek a better life although I don't discount the possibility that he was running from trouble. (He was a pretty wild alcoholic.)

  • My mother's grandparents were Irish and came over early 1900s. They both died long before I was born. I'm pretty sure they came into this country legally, I know they came in search of a better life.

  • My stepfather's father came to America because to escape pogroms in Russia in the 1920s. I don't know if he was legal either, I think he might have been.

  • My wife's grandmother was hidden in an a large oven by her family when their Hungarian bakery was raided by Nazis in the 1930s. She was discovered, barely alive, by neighbors who then sent her to very distant American relatives when she was 11. We don't know if she was "legal" or not.

    I think one of the most profound truths about immigration is that no one chooses where they are born. The vast majority of people in America are the descendents of people who came here from somewhere else, many through official channels, many not. The fact is that if we choose to vilify today's immigrants then we are vilifying many of our own ancestors. Most of our ancestors have a great deal in common with today's immigrants, or at least the immigrants that are being targeted at the moment-- they were/are all mostly non-english speaking, poor and uneducated and were/are in search of a better, safer life.

    I'm not denying that immigration today has problems, but I am rejecting the notion that today's immigrants, specifically from Mexico and Latin America, are any less deserving of a chance than anyone else's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. Let's not forgot in our zeal to protect ourselves that one of the characteristics that sets America apart from the rest of the world is that we are a nation established and built by immigrants. We are turning our backs on ourselves, our history, if we declare immigrants to be a "threat."

    So whenever someone says something ignorant or ugly about Those People they're talking about all of us, in one way or another.
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