Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp besides the golden door!
So read the timeless words of poet Emma Lazarus, immortalized in a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
But in 1880, six years before the Statue of Liberty was completed, the US enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act which officially banned Chinese from entering the U.S. The Act was not repealed until 1943.
I guess 2015 is the new 1880.
Acknowledging the latest vitriol from Donald Trump feels like shining a spotlight on a circus barker. For a while — I hate to admit it — I indulged in thinking of Trump as an entertaining and harmless sideshow. Not any more.
Trump’s latest call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States is an abomination and an insult, not just to Muslims but to all of us, to our country, and to what it stands for. While it’s encouraging that Trump’s nonsense has been disavowed by nearly all major public figures, including most of the Republican Presidential candidates, Trump’s poll numbers remain firm as his supporters jeer more loudly, fanning the flames of ignorance and hatred.
In interviews, Trump’s supporters say “they” a lot, as in “they, Muslims, present a threat.” I wonder when Americans forgot that each and every one of us was, not so long ago, a “they.”
I was a “they” in 1947.
On Thanksgiving Day 1947, my grandparents arrived in San Francisco from China, having fled the Nazis in the early 1940s. They and more than 100,000 Jewish refugees entered the United States thanks to changes in immigration policy under President Harry Truman. In December 1945 the Truman Directive gave U.S. Visa preference to displaced persons.
This was a big change. Throughout World War II, the United States had refused to open its borders to Jewish refugees, turning its back on one of the greatest tragedies in human history. Fear and xenophobia reigned at home while soldiers fought for freedom and democracy abroad: Japanese were put in internment camps, and the rights of Germans and Italians were severely curtailed.
Lejb and Chaja Dichter (who later became Leon and Lucy Dichter), my grandparents, were two of these refugees. They arrived in San Francisco on a boat from Shanghai after six years of running for their lives: from Poland, to Lithuania, to Japan, and finally to Shanghai. They arrived with their two year old son, my father Misha, in tow, having buried their first child in the Shanghai ghetto. They quickly built a life for themselves in this country.
At my desk, I have a printout of a document that records my grandparents’ arrival as refugees in Kobe, Japan in 1941. It reminds me that life is tenuous. It reminds me that I am here thanks to the risks that people I will never meet were willing to take to shelter and protect my grandparents as they fled the Nazis.
It is in no small part because of those people that I do the work that I do: because when I see my own children’s bright and smiling faces, when I see what a light they are in the world, I am thankful. And I hope that I can do my own small part to save even just two more lives, to pay forward the infinite kindnesses that were done for my family just 70 years ago.
Mine is one of hundreds of millions of immigrant stories that end happily in the United States.
There is no separating immigrants from the United States. There is no “we” that exists separate from the “they” who have just arrived.
We are all immigrants. It is who we are. It is what makes this country great.
(This post also appears on my personal blog)