Being an immigrant myself, I am intensely aware of the giftedness of the immigrant to our nation and our responsibility to provide an orderly and fair transition to citizenship. I remember my father telling me how important coming to America was for him. There was no hope in the towns of Southern Italy. Poverty was part of life and a certain fatalism also. He wanted to come over to this country since his brother was already here and could be his sponsor.
My dad began work at 5 years old. His family was very poor and needed for him to go each day to the local shoemaker and clean his shop. He told me how proud he was to come home each day with a loaf of very needed bread for his parents and family. There was no possibility for school (my father was self taught and learned to read on his own). While working for the shoemaker, he learned how to make shoes. This was the old apprentice system, which was prevalent throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. At 18 he was drafted by the Italian army and saw 4 years of fighting on the Austrian front in World War I. After being wounded several times, he ended the war as an artillery sergeant. When he went home, there was no work and no hope, so he traveled to the new world in search of hope and dignity.
The immigration system at that time was very open: all you needed was to be healthy and have a sponsor and you got in. There were so many Italians and Jews coming in, however, that the first restrictive laws were passed. America really wanted only white people from Northern Europe. Luckily my Dad got in before these restrictions took effect.
As soon as he was legally able, he became a citizen of this great nation that embraced him and gave him hope.
America is a nation that has always welcomed people like my father. But there were always the voices of fear and restriction. While it is important to have a solid and workable immigration system, it is also important to remember the generosity of spirit that made this country so great. When we compare ourselves to other English speaking countries, with far more restrictive immigration systems (like Canada and Australia), the United States became the greatest country in the world because of our openness to immigrants. Even Mao Zedong (no friend of the United States!) admired the international nature of our country. Our openhearted stance toward immigration produced a labor force unequaled in the world, and this labor force gave birth to new generations of prosperous and educated citizens that have made us great.
Unless we fairly and compassionately fix our immigration system, the forces of selfishness and restriction will win out and we will lose that place in the world’s imagination: “Here is a great country that wisely and generously believes in the future”.
Sure we need to have borders that work. But we also need a fair and efficient way of attracting and assimilating the peoples who want to work hard for their families and for hope in the future. And not just the educated! How many of our ancestors were graduates of colleges and holders of degrees? Were they not poor and humble people who were willing to work long hours and multiple jobs to have hope in their families? The stories are countless of the humble beginnings of great and educated men and women who contributed a great deal to the development of this great nation. Our future is bound up with the prodigious work ethic of the aspiring people of the earth. Do we dare become welcomers of only those who we judged to ‘merit’ coming here? How many of our ancestors would still be in the hopeless conditions of their countries of origin? It is this very hopelessness that provides the astounding capacity to strive and work hard. When combined with the freedom that our Constitution furnishes, this results in the hope that makes it all worthwhile. While they at first have no hope of desire to enter the hallowed halls of Harvard, their children or grandchildren will.
The greatness of this nation is built on the hopes of the humble of the earth. To do everything we can to ‘keep them out’ and accept only the ‘fully formed’ who could better contribute to their own country’s welfare is to condemn ourselves to eventual decline.
Put personally, my father would have been kept out as well as the other branches of the family because we were not ‘northern enough’ and ‘educated enough’ to make a lasting contribution to America.
Our immigration system needs to be rehauled completely so that we profit from the aspiring multitudes who will make us great again.
We need walls and bridges.