"Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . ."
Without question, the vast majority of readers of The K.F. Stone Weekly are either the children of, grandchildren of - occasionally the great grandchildren ofor, like myself, the spouses of - immigrants. Hell, with the exception of Native Americans, we're all immigrants . . . even those who trace their American ancestry back to the Mayflower. And whether your family originally entered these shores via New Amsterdam, the Canadian Border, Castle Garden, Ellis Island, San Francisco or - like my father's family - Baltimore Harbor - is not terribly important. What matters is that generation after generation after generation of the endangered, impoverished, dispossessed and downtrodden have come here with the hope of creating new lives; mostcame seeking a safe harbor, dignity and hope for themselves, their children and the generations yet-to-be born.
Running parallel to our centuries-old history of immigration has, of course, been a centuries-old history of fear; a fear that these newcomers - the "other" - were the dregs of society, coming here riddled with disease and criminal ways, intent upon stealing our jobs and forcing "us" to pay their way. Times of spasmodic nativism, populism - "America-first-ism" if you will - generally accompanied each new wave of immigrants; especially if the economy was down, elections were near and politicians looking for someone to blame. It really did not matter if these newcomers were Irish-Catholics, Chinese Confucians, Eastern European Jews or today, Haitians and Muslims; they became targets of opprobrium for many, convenient whipping-boys for the masses.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. One thing which has rarely changed is that the charges levied against "the other" are frequently painted with such a broad brush as to be ludicrous. Take the current debate over immigration. Despite the fact that in recent polls showonly around 8% of all registered voters say that immigration is of "greatest importance in deciding how I will vote in 2016," it has been central to the rise of Donald Trump. As a result of all his anti-Mexican, anti-Latino, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant-rhetoric-in-general, we've fallen into the age-old trap of believing - like people in the 1840's, 1880's, and early 20th century - that, as mentioned above these newcomers are flocking here with the express purpose of taking all they can get and plotting to do us permanent harm, all the while refusing to become "real Americans" or learn to speak English.
There are so many myths about immigrants nowadays:
- "Anchor Babies" keep their parents in the United States.
- Anyone who illegally enters the U.S. is a criminal.
- Illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes but still get benefits including free education for their children.
- There are more illegal immigrants here now than ever before.
- Illegal immigrants bring crime.
- Immigrants take good jobs from Americans.
- Today’s immigrants don’t want to blend in and become “Americanized” and refuse to learn English.
- There’s a way to enter the country legally for anyone who wants to get in line.
Regrettably, debunking these eight major myths would put me well over my self-imposed limit of 1,500 words per week. For those who wish to be armed with answers to these scurrilous - and untrue - charges, check out the Policy.mic website. The one charge I do wish to answer is number seven: that "Today's immigrants don't want to blend in and become 'Americanized' and refuse to learn English."
Those who claim this are, in the words of Grannie Annie, "full of canal water."
Most of us don't spend much time hanging out with newcomers. Then too, most of us don't know too many ardent supporters of the Second Amendment - or people who are stridently pro-life (I prefer to call them "pro-birth"), or those who believe that building a wall at the Mexican border (and forcing them to pay for it) makes for sound foreign policy . . . and on and on. In other words, people have a tendency to spend more time with those who pretty much share the same opinions and more often than not vote the same way.
As George Harrison wrote nearly half a century ago, "Isn't it a pity we've never met before?"
My wife Annie, who, along with her parents left Peron's dictatorial Argentina for America in 1969, has spent much of her professional career teaching English and "giving birth" to new American citizens through a program called "Project RENEW" - Refugees Entering New Enterprises and Workforce. This program, which receives funding from a combination of local, state and federal resources, teaches English to adult refugees, asylees and victims of human trafficking. More importantly, it teaches students basic life skills and civics, and prepares them for the day when they can become American citizens. Over the years - depending on what is happening in the world - the majority of her students come from Haiti . . . or Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Afghanistan. In any class she might have an immigrant who was a skilled surgeon in their native country sitting alongside a student who cannot spell their own name because they have never attended a single day of school. Many of her students enter her classes having come straight from the 15th century; they leave as full-fledged residents of the 21st.
These are people who work one, two, sometimes three minimum-wage jobs a day, who take one, two, even three buses to class, often arriving just in time for their 3-4 hour session with Annie, and then get back on the bus to reach their nighttime job. They are starving to learn; to become citizens; to make a contribution to the country which is providing them and their families a safe harbor. They have little if anything in common with the stereotypical "illegal alien" who is here to steal our jobs, infect us with diseases rob, rape or blow us up in an act of terror . . .
September 16-25 happens to be "Welcoming Week," a joyous and hopeful time that I doubt Donald Trump has ever heard of. It is sponsored by Welcoming America, an organization which ". . . inspires people to build a different kind of community — one that embraces immigrants and fosters opportunity for all." You've never seen a more joyous gathering than those times of the year when Annie's students, standing erect, tears in their eyes, take their oaths and become citizens of the United States of America. And then, certificates in hand, they leave the auditorium where they are met by people who will register them to vote.
America needs immigrants; we always have and always will. They are the ones who are going to provide a new generation of workers who will pay to keep Social Security going; they are the ones who will continue adding the one thing which has always made America exceptional and great: diversity. We are not a "melting pot"; what we are - and always have been - is a salad bowl: an entity which is singular, healthy and delicious -- and in which one can still see all the unique ingredients which make it up.
Copyright©2016 Kurt F. Stone