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I WITNESS: What America means to me

It is my hope that this country will always welcome those fleeing poverty, oppression, violence, and hopelessness, and provide to them the same chance to work hard and succeed in America that was extended to our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents.

In other countries, July 4 is just an ordinary day, with little to distinguish it from July 3 or July 5. July 4 has special significance only in the United States, since it commemorates the day in 1776 that our founders declared our independence from British rule.

I am a big fan of the Fourth of July, and a big fan of America.

I love America with the deeply grateful heart that beats in all children of refugees. I am inspired, continually, by the words of Emma Lazarus, whose poem, “The New Colossus,” is engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. For me, the final stanza of that poem is an elegant summary of what the promise of America has represented for every refugee who ever entered our country through New York Harbor, or through any other port of entry, for that matter:

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The Statue of Liberty still stands in New York Harbor, her torch held high, a beacon of hope that gazes toward the horizon from her vantage point on Liberty Island. Liberty Island is adjacent to Ellis Island, a major port of entry into the United States until it was discontinued as an immigrant-processing center after World War II, when air travel gradually displaced ocean travel as the primary means of entering the United States. My mother’s father, an immigrant from Lithuania by way of Palestine; my mother’s mother, an immigrant from Ukraine; and my father, an immigrant from Germany, all arrived in the United States by ship and were processed at Ellis Island. Each of them could recite the final stanza of Lazarus’ poem by heart, as can I.

Lazarus’ poem is not about someone else’s story; it is about our collective American story. We are a nation of immigrants. Reach deep enough into your family tree and you will find the ancestor who left their native country hoping to find a better life in America. Ron DeSantis’ Sicilian great-grandparents were processed through Ellis Island. Donald Trump’s German grandfather was processed through Ellis Island. The Kennedy and Biden families are descended from Irish and English immigrants who also entered America through Ellis Island. Prior to 1954, if your family traveled from their native land in Europe to seek a better life in America, chances are they arrived through Ellis Island, too. Wave after wave washed ashore, lured by the promise of freedom and prosperity: the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Italians, the Slavs, the Poles, the Swedes, the Scots, the Irish, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Greeks, the Russians, the Jews.

In California, Asian immigrants entered our country through Angel Island, located in San Francisco Bay. Those Asian immigrants were responsible, in the 1860s, for building the transcontinental railroad that transformed American travel and commerce. Angel Island was shuttered in 1940 and became an immigration museum.

There was nothing pleasant about entering the country through either Ellis Island or Angel Island. Think of those centers as one big cattle call, except that instead of cattle, they were herding humans. The humans being herded were not princes; they were paupers. They traveled “steerage,” consigned to the dank, vermin-infested bellies of the boats that brought them. They fled famine, poverty, and persecution, flocking to our shores for a chance at a better life for themselves and their families.

Immigrants arriving at American immigrant-processing centers were inspected for signs of disease. They were weighed, measured, poked, prodded, and interviewed in a language that many did not yet understand. Generations of immigrants had the traditional spellings of their names changed by the immigration authorities who processed them. This was particularly true of refugees whose native languages were written in a different alphabet—Hebrew, for instance, or Arabic, or Cyrillic, or Chinese. Immigration agents just spelled in English what the names sounded like to them, with varying degrees of accuracy.

Since there were no quotas for immigrants from Europe until 1924, there was nothing to prevent these refugees from entering the country. Once processed, the immigrants were released onto the streets of San Francisco or New York to seek food, shelter, and some sort of work to sustain themselves. Many joined family members already living and subsisting throughout America, in what undoubtedly amounted to decades’ worth of “chain migrations.” Those who stayed in New York or San Francisco lived in squalid, airless tenements on the Lower East Side of New York, or in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Theirs were hand-to-mouth, hardscrabble lives. They were ditch diggers, coal shovellers, tailors, cobblers, iron mongers, day laborers, peddlers, cooks, maids, janitors, dish washers, and street sweepers. Children worked alongside their parents in sweatshops, or sold newspapers on street corners, or became juvenile delinquents in order to augment their parents’ meager wages.

Because they were poor, uneducated, and “foreign,” they were seen as detrimental to the communities in which they lived. Italians were thought of as greasy, garlicky, hot-tempered, and noisy; the Irish were regarded as drunken, brawling lie-abouts; Germans were cold, humorless, and untrustworthy; Jews engaged in odd practices that made sense to no one. Refugees ate strange foods and wore strange clothes and spoke strange languages. Their children were disrespectful hooligans who ran the streets in gangs and specialized in petty theft. There was something inferior—and intrinsically wrong—with all of them.

They were poisoning the blood of America.

But then something curious happened. Each wave of immigrants worked so hard that by the time their children had reached adulthood, they had climbed out of poverty. They had entered the working and middle classes. They were no longer strangers and invaders; they were our friends and neighbors now, adding to the savor and texture and health and wealth of the cities and towns where they lived.

When children are lifted out of poverty, something miraculous happens: They stop stealing. It turns out that when the children of impoverished refugees were given education and opportunity, they transformed from petty thieves into high school and college graduates who made significant contributions to the U.S. economy. They had assimilated, succeeded, and become hardworking, patriotic Americans, all within a single generation.

Yet each successive wave of immigrants has been reviled by what Tucker Carlson refers to as “legacy Americans,” or those descended from the “original” settlers of America—even though they, too, were refugees. They had fled religious persecution in England and boarded the Mayflower to seek a better life in the new world. The “we were here first” argument must strike Indigenous Americans—the people who really were here first—as among the most offensive sentiments expressed by the descendants of the Anglos who stole their ancestral lands, herded them onto reservations, destroyed their culture, and gave them smallpox.

The same condition appears to afflict not just those whose ancestors disembarked from the Mayflower, but the descendants of every subsequent wave of refugees. Those descendants are not always inclined to roll out the welcome mat for the next generation of immigrants. The next wave is often viewed with equal suspicion by the waves that preceded them. It strikes me as a unique and unfortunate form of amnesia.

It is my hope that this country will always welcome those fleeing poverty, oppression, violence, and hopelessness, and provide to them the same chance to work hard and succeed in America that was extended to our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents.

Given half a chance, a helping hand, and a little forbearance, the American experience is transformative for both the immigrant and the host. We know this objectively, since all of us come from families that originally came from somewhere else.

We are the American experiment, all of us, whether our families have been here for hundreds of years, or whether they just arrived last week. We all came from difficult circumstances, making perilous journeys to try our luck, make our mark, and succeed by our own efforts.

All of us are what make America great, no matter where we came from, and all of us must work to preserve the promise of America for those who have yet to arrive.

Happy Independence Day.


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