It is time to dust off a couple of books which made their mark in the mid-20th century but have over time been pushed to the back of the shelf: President Kennedy’s essay, A Nation of Immigrants and a book by Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted. At the time of Handlin’s death in 2011, the New York Times wrote this:
But his [Handlin] best-known work, “The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People,” which won the 1952 Pulitzer for history, was aimed at an audience of general readers in making his case that immigration — more than the frontier experience, or any other episode in its past — was the continuing, defining event of American history. Dispensing with footnotes and writing in a lyrical style, Dr. Handlin emphasized the common threads in the experiences of the 30 million immigrants who poured into American cities between 1820 and the turn of the century. Regardless of nationality, religion, race or ethnicity, he wrote, the common experience was wrenching hardship, alienation and a gradual Americanization that changed America as much as it changed the newcomers.
It seems we are about to have a new lesson in immigration and the part it continues to play in our American story. Anti-immigration feeling has always been a part of our history, rearing its ugly head in the mid-1800s when thousands of Germans fleeing war in Europe came to America. Their culture was new to the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestants who were the principal citizens of America at that time and the WASPs didn’t like them. The potato famine and poverty brought the Irish to America by the thousands. In New York, store owners posted signs in their windows NINA which simply meant, No Irish Need Apply. On the West coast it was anti-Asian feeling, the overwhelming of America by the “yellow hoards”, although thousands of Chinese laborers were needed in order for the trans-continental railroad to be accomplished. Building up the dry deserts of the far West created huge vegetable truck farms owned and operated by Asians. We all know the tragic story of the Japanese-Americans who were forced into camps at the outbreak of World War II. They played out a tragic chapter in American history.
All of us wear the mark of the immigrant on our foreheads. Every American researching their family history will eventually have to ask the question, “Yes, but when did we come to this country and from where?” Our uniquely American culture is a stew of religious faiths, music, cuisine, literature, fashion and on and on. To be American is to carry the genes of men and women of desperate courage. A great uncle who came from Norway said, “There has to be a place where people don’t have to work like horses to survive.” He came to America and Wisconsin and later brought over his parents and little brother, my grandfather. My grandfather always liked Theodore Roosevelt’s quotation, “Show me a man who is proud of his fatherland and I will show you a good American.” My Swedish grandfather lost his father when he was nine years old. There was nothing for him in Sweden so like a brother and two sisters before him, at 19 he left his mother and other siblings behind and came to America. My father remembers a group of Swedish homesteaders standing and visiting with each other. They began to speak Swedish and my grandfather said, “We speak English. We are Americans now.” We see that statement proved out in the deaths of young men and women of various backgrounds who enter the military and prove how important democracy is to them and their families.
In later years our history has seen Vietnamese boat people and Africans, people from Mexico, Central America, and the Middle East fleeing war and poverty. I remember reading of a Ph.D. college professor from Vietnam who fled that country with his family and worked as a custodian and his wife as a hotel chambermaid so their children could have an education and live in a free country. True to the unwritten code of the immigrant, education was the key to upward movement. My grandparents and parents always talked about more education and their children and grandchildren have fulfilled that dream.
In the upcoming discussions about immigration reform there are two paths which parallel each other — periodic reform is needed in any process or institution. There is always a better way to do things and America must be a safe place for those who are afraid. But the parallel path is one which feeds on racism and cultural hatred. Xenophobia or fear of the stranger is known in every society and America as much as anywhere. Our greatness as a nation has been the power to bring all people into the great mix. Every person brings something special.
President Kennedy wrote: This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.
Recently I heard from a second cousin in Sweden. Her daughter has come to America to marry a man from Brazil and they will make America their home. I couldn’t say it better.