Immigration as Asset

Amy Shimshon-Santo
Nov 27, 2014 · 3 min read

Overcoming xenophobia will require that old immigrants and new immigrants come together to find common ground.

America is not an island. We are a part of a complex world. There have been waves of immigration in my own family. Our story is one of many.

My great grandmother Bessie immigrated to New York in the late 1800s. Her son, my grandfather, spent the first eight years of his life with his own grandparents collecting Bessie’s five-dollar money orders to save up for his boat trip to New York. Eventually, Shloime from Pitkamien arrived in New Jersey and was renamed Sidney.

“What was school like in the old country?” I once asked my grandfather.

“Jewish children couldn’t go to school. The boys went to the Rabbi’s house to study Torah and the Talmud. The girls stayed home and did chores. Lunch was a crust of bread. We rubbed a clove of garlic on it for flavor.”

“What was the boat trip like?”

He laughed and looked down. “You wanted to die.”

Many immigration stories remain untold or lost due to the pain they elicit. Sure, it was a hard trip, and an excruciatingly long wait, but he would have died before he reached adulthood had he remained in Europe during the holocaust.

A half-century later, my mother came to the United States on the Queen Elizabeth.

“I came to the United States because I didn’t want to grow up to make knedlach,” she said.

That was Mom’s way of shrugging off her frustrations with the strict religious education that framed her childhood. She wanted to be an artist, not a noodle maker.

Global aspirations suited my mother well, but they also came with a cost. We’ve had to miss far too many births and marriages because of distance, timing, and finances. Due to circumstances beyond her control, she wasn’t able to sit Shiva for her own mother — an important Jewish tradition.

I grew up and married a man who came to the United States from Brazil. He was a world-class artist of humble means whose family was originally brought to Latin America from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.

We were married for 14 years and had two beloved children. The sounds in our home were peppered with English, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, Hebrew, and Yiddish. We ate muceca de peixe and matzo ball soup. We gave thanks for our meals at dinnertime in Hebrew and Yoruba — splicing our ancestral languages together to create a sense of wholeness and give our children a link to their rich origins.

Humanity is fantastic in its diversity. Treating each other as neighbors may be the key to our survival.

My Dad’s childhood mentor, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, said this at the March on Washington:

“Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of [human] dignity and integrity.”

It is time for old immigrants and new immigrants in the United States to defend this foundational ideal.

I’m thankful for the treasures of hope and ingenuity, of imagination and resilience. Our immigrant roots have allowed us to become experts at translating across contexts and world views. We forge ties that link geographies, cultures, languages, and belief systems. These powerful qualities that flourish in immigrant homes and communities are crucial to the United States ability to thrive in an increasingly interconnected world.


Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a researcher, artist, and urban strategist. She teaches at Claremont Graduate University, and directs CREO Worldwide. @amyshimshon

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