I have never been more proud nor outspoken about being the granddaughter of immigrants than I am in these days. My parents were first-generation children of immigrants and proud of their parents and their background and that is the way I was raised. Both grandfathers came to this country extremely poor — my Norwegian grandfather and his parents came because of an older brother who worked to raise money to support their coming and who said, “There must be some place where a man does not have to work like an animal to survive.” He was no different than the hundreds of immigrants who have come to make a place for those who will follow. He saw America as a safe place for his parents and little brother. My Swedish grandfather lost his father when he was nine years old. There was a small business but that was for an older brother, so his sisters who had come earlier to this country sponsored him so he could come. Both men were intelligent and well-spoken and not afraid to express their opinions in any forum. One would quote Teddy Roosevelt who said, “Show me a man who is proud of his fatherland and I will show you a good American.” The other told a group of immigrants at a gathering, “We speak English now. We are Americans.” They were proud of being Americans, but they were intensely proud of their heritage as well and never made apologies for their broken English. One was a Republican who was a Progressive and a moderate, the other was more Socialist than anything else. I was raised to be first an American, but secondly to never forget where I came from and that this is a country of immigrants and I was a product of their courage.
Tonight was the State of the Union address and one speaker in commenting about the remarks that had been made quoted the motto of the United States, “out of many one.” It was established by Congress in 1782 talking about thirteen colonies becoming one nation, but like many such ideas, it has grown to mean even more than it once did. Like many families in America today, my family represents the world — with cousins and their children and grandchildren, with marriages we now are a veritable United Nations, representing not only Norway and Sweden, but England, Germany, Australia, Mexico, Iran, Canada, the Ukraine, Hungary, Ireland, and others. And we are not alone. Most families in this country find themselves part of every creed and color. But first and foremost we are Americans.
Because of what my grandparents experienced: poverty, hard work, discrimination, depression, war, drought I honor them and their sacrifices and then offer that same life to those who have come after. Make no mistake, no one who makes the choice to come to America has had it easy. Just getting here is life-threatening most often. Every immigrant steps on to our shores with fear — black, Latino, Middle Eastern, Central American, East Indian, Asian, European. Every person has had to work hard and scrimp and save just to get here. For many that trip was frightening and loss of life was a real possibility. I think of stories of those fleeing Europe after World War II and the encroaching tyranny of communism, the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and other persecutions. Chinese trying to get out of Communist China and those from Central America fleeing the military dictatorships; boat people of Vietnam. Those from Cuba who fled after the revolution, the Rhohingya today, the Africans crossing the Mediterranean and the Syrians fleeing Turkey and trying to reach Europe.
Life for my grandfathers was easier because they came from a western European nation, but I truly believe they would have been the last ones to deny anyone else from making that same passage and trying to make a better life for themselves.
There is no one in this country who can escape the heritage of the immigrant. After some work on my ancestry I am wondering if the Irish in my background could have been indentured servants. The Irish were the poorest of the poor in those times and in the 1800s, at the time of the Irish potato famine they were banned and faced fierce discrimination, but they were tough and they survived and today most of us have a touch of Irish somewhere in our background and we are proud of it.
Thomas Donne, the English poet wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a part of the continent, a piece of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less. . .” No one has the right to tell someone they are not welcome in this country. America is not something we possess. America is a gift, an idea, where freedom and equal opportunity are to be shared. Where every color and creed and language is welcome. It is who we are — out of many, one.