Thursday, July 21, 2016

Traveling to America - It Doesn't Seem Like the Country I Know Anymore

My grandmother came to America with her family in 1905. She was only eight years old at the time, but remembered this major event for the rest of her life and told me about it repeatedly until she passed away at the age of 86. Theodore Roosevelt was President then and my Grandma always spoke about what a great man he was and how her father-my great-grandfather- respected him. They were always grateful to the United States for taking them in.

How transformative it must have been for my relatives after fleeing the anti-Semitism and pogroms of Russia to sail into Liberty Island and see the Lady gleaming in the harbor, her poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the statue’s base welcoming them into America, a country of freedom and opportunity.
The last few lines of “The New Colossus” which Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 are well known.

….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 beside the golden door!"

Unless you're a Native American Indian, you’ve come to America from another country or your ancestors have – maybe your parents came or maybe in your case, it was many generations back. Maybe your relatives came very unwillingly as slaves or indentured servants but regardless, they came from another place and made America their home. We are a country of immigrants and it is a major source of our strength.

Admittedly, America hasn’t always unanimously welcomed every wave of immigration. In the 1850’s, the Know Nothings nominated former President Fillmore as their standard bearer to fight against the tides of Irish Catholic immigration. In the 1920’s, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 was passed and the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed as well establishing yearly quotas for immigrants from each country. During World War II shiploads of Jewish refugees were turned away. In more recent times, we’ve made it difficult for Mexicans and other Central Americans who’ve come here from poverty and violence desperately trying to survive. I’m not proud of any of these moments in our history.

Rather, I like to think of the America that has managed better than almost any other country on Earth to form a nation out of all the many peoples who have come seeking  here refuge and/or better opportunities. From 1880-1920 America received 20 million immigrants. Their descendants are now Americans. 

When I see people subscribing to the racism and xenophobia espoused by Donald Trump, I feel blessed that neither my grandmother nor mother is alive to see him receive the nomination of one of our major political parties. We have done so much better and we should continue to do so much better. I pray that we find a way out of this wilderness of hatred and listen to our better angels. I know that we Americans can.
The Statue of Liberty - May she continue to be the beacon of freedom and hospitality to the world.


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