Immigration — Our Nation of Immigrant Citizens

By Jeffrey Heisler

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island

We are a nation of immigrants. Well, most of us are. If you’re Native American you’re not an immigrant, you’re a victim of immigrants- but that’s another story. The history of African-Americans is another story too. Those cases show the ugly side of American immigration. Most stories are beautiful.

Many of the immigrants to our country wanted desperately to be here. They escaped from war zones, abject poverty, religious persecution, and mass starvation. They took everything they had and stuffed it into a few bags before getting on an enormous ship to sail across the ocean. It would have been an exhilarating and terrifying experience all at once.

When at last they approached New York the magnificent Statue of Liberty came into view bringing a mix of stunned, reverent silence and shouts of pure joy. They had made it. They were soon to be Americans.

Ronald Reagan liked to tell this story- “America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’”

What a beautiful thought.

There are a lot of people bashing immigrants today, and I don’t like it at all. It’s really unfair to look down on people who so love our country they would do anything to get here, legal or otherwise. I suspect that if the people who complained about immigrants spent more time with them, they wouldn’t complain so much. Most people are good and hate to see bad things happen to other good people.

One of the complaints that comes up often is a complaint about assimilation. Some immigrants, they say, will never be assimilated into American life. They’re too different, and many don’t even want to. Well, as a history teacher it’s my duty to tell you that this was said of every…single…group of immigrants in American history. All of them.

Let me show you.

This picture is about the Irish. Yes, the Irish. The artist here is trying to portray them as savages who will never fit into America’s melting pot. Seems silly to think of today.

Here’s another one about folks from Europe.

And this one about the Chinese who were not allowed to immigrate as soon as they finished building the transcontinental railroad.

More recently the Japanese, who were treated with great suspicion after Pearl Harbor, rounded up and thrown into camps for the duration of the war. My family is part German. No one locked them up. The Italians either.

Another complaint is that immigrants use our social services. True perhaps, but every immigrant is also a customer for someone. Legal immigrants pay taxes and serve in the military. They fill jobs that are hard to find people for, not just in agriculture- but in the fields of science, medicine, and technology.

We are clearly better off for having them here.

It isn’t fair or appropriate for a country to just leave it’s borders open against its own policy. Millions of immigrants are here when they’re not supposed to be. Their reasons for coming are often just as good as legal immigrants and refugees, but they’re breaking the law. I’m not sure what to do about it. I suspect like most Americans I feel torn between a respect for the law and basic human compassion. It can be hard sometimes.

In the end I believe Americans are a welcoming people who are happy to share the rights and opportunities we declared when we said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Let me leave you now with the stirring words of Emma Lazarus. Words enshrined at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Give your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, give these- the homeless, tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

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