My grandmother came to this country as a teenager, leaving Romania. She did not have a high school diploma (I don’t even know how many years of schooling she had). She had no family in America, other than her sister who came over to the US at about the same time. She did not have a job lined up. She was an Orthodox Christian, but not one of any of the “established” religions in the US. However, in the early 1910’s, World War I was looming over the continent. Her to-be husband left sometime earlier in order to avoid being forced into the Austria-Hungarian Army. He did not want to fight someone else’s war, for a country he was not a citizen (Romania was a conquered territory of the Austria-Hungary Empire at that time).
Like so many others, these immigrants came to the Land of Opportunity, to start a new life. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty beckoned, and they made it through. Eventually, my grandmother settled in Ohio, got married, had a family, and became a widow at a very young age. She became a US citizen in time. The family survived and thrived. Somewhere along the line she became a house mother and cook at a local fraternity. She even learned to speak English.
In the end, I am here because of her.
I tell that short story because I always think of it when I hear discussion of immigration policy. There is so much talk about not letting “outsiders” in. We don’t want the “trash” of other countries coming over here. “They will just take our jobs”. They represent a changing America. They don’t speak our language. They are not the same religion as us. They threaten the American way of life.
Back in the 1910’s, many Americans did not want to let in “outsiders”. Eastern Europeans were darker skinned, spoke different languages, had different religions and were not necessarily advocates of democracy. Some who came were anarchists, believing in no government. Some were people kicked out of their country for various reasons. But many of them got into America. We did the same thing with Irish in the 1840’s and 1850’s (we can’t let those Catholics in!). Italians faced a similar dislike after the Civil War (they are all being sent here by the Pope to take over our country). Russian Jews were thrown out of their country in the late 19th Century (the Czar needed someone to blame for bad conditions). If you are interested, look at this short article about an anti-Catholic magazine from 100 years ago (http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-catholic-scare-20151209-story.html)
But you know what? That “trash”, those immigrants, are now our country. And many of us would not be here if not for them. They were just trying to make a better life for themselves. Where they lived in Europe was hazardous, and in some cases, dangerous. They came here and became part of our fabric.
So what makes today different?
Try to think about this post the next time you read about immigration rhetoric.