Were any of your ancestors here to meet the Godspeed at Jamestown or the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock?
Then you, like me, belong to an immigrant family. Your forebears may have been here longer than mine, who came in the late 1800s, but we are alike in that none of our American roots were planted with the permission of the only people who had the right to give it.
The so-called “sale” of Manhattan Island for a few dollars’ worth of baubles has been vastly misunderstood by pop history. As Russell Shorto points out in his excellent book, The Island at the Center of the World, “The Indians had a different idea of land ownership from the Europeans. With no concept of permanent property transfer, Indians of the Northeast saw a real estate deal as a combination of a rental agreement and a treaty or alliance between two groups.”
But I digress.
If the history of the United States were to be seen through a single lens, the focus would be immigration. Unlike any other nation, America as we know it was built entirely by relatively recent immigrants – including the millions brought here against their will as slaves – and it is to all of them that we owe everything we have and everything we are.
Yet there are some who want to pull the ladder up and step on the faces of those still trying to climb it, and a foul-smelling bunch of politicians eager to do it.
Those who yammer about illegal immigration might want to check their own family trees for people who bent or evaded the law, usually through Canada, after a Congress festering in isolationism and bigotry finally began to impose national quotas and elaborate rules in the early 20th century.
The quotas were deliberately constructed to favor northern Europeans and to obstruct eastern Europeans – meaning Jews – and the darker-complexioned people from the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East.
The history of this immigrant nation is told broadly at Ellis Island, but there’s another not-be-missed museum in New York City that you might not have heard about and is well worth a visit
It’s the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, which offers tours of the neighborhood and visits to an actual tenement building, where several apartments have been restored to show how families lived at them at different points in time – beginning when there was no electricity or indoor plumbing.
They lived in appalling conditions, not by choice but because it’s all there was, and left as soon they were able. It’s a testament to the triumph of the human spirit and the meaning of America.
Immigrants built the railroads, mined and milled the iron ore and coal, and account for the rich diversity in our religious faiths and other cultural traditions.
Without them today, we’d starve for want of fruit and vegetables. The construction industry would crash.
A recent report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center said immigrants are strengthening, not weakening, the state’s economy, generating a larger share of activity than their percentage of the population, and account for more than 20 percent of Main Street business owners. Counties with larger immigrant populations average lower unemployment rates and levels of poverty and higher wages than counties with few immigrants, the report said.
Whether legal or not, our recent immigrants are here for precisely the same reason your ancestors and mine came: to make a better life for themselves and their families – for the love of those families, exactly as Jeb Bush says.
They are making our nation stronger, not weaker, and most Americans agree with Bush on that point too. But a recent Pew Research Center poll found that to be a shrinking majority, due probably to the drumbeat of bigotry from the right wing. Still, some 72 percent of us agree also that a way should be found to allow permanent residence for those without papers.
That’s a substantial majority, yet among the Republicans who look in the mirror and see a president only Bush represents that majority. The others cater to the paranoia and, yes, the racism that has corrupted their party.
When a Tea Party rally whoops and hollers for one congressman who compares immigrants to cockroaches and for another who tells a trembling 11-year old citizen to her face that her undocumented father deserves to be deported, it’s hard to distinguish those events from a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning.
No grand dragon ever revealed his bigotry more vividly than Phyllis Schlafly did in a recent diatribe against President Barack Obama’s attempts to humanize immigration policy.
Immigrants today, she complained “are not the same sort as the immigrants who contributed so much to building our great country…they don’t want to leave their homes and become Americans, accepting all that comes along with it. Many of them just want to reap the rewards of our free nation without accepting American culture, the English language and the rule of law.”
That’s so untrue that Pinocchio would blush. She wouldn’t be talking that way if the people in question were white-skinned folk fleeing an economic crisis in Canada rather than citizens of countries where the motivation is spelled pobreza. Secondly, most of the people she doesn’t like would gladly stay, and bring their families, if only we would let them. Thirdly, many earlier waves of immigrants – especially the older people – continued to speak native languages such as Italian, German, Chinese and Yiddish. It didn’t hurt us. And as past volunteers for a Literacy Council, my wife and I can testify that there are plenty of Spanish-speakers eager to learn English.
Strange, isn’t it, that we don’t hear the right wing complaining about the prevalence of Cuban Spanish in South Florida? The difference is that if the Mexicans are allowed to stay and become citizens, they’d vote Democratic.
And no wonder.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in Western North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.