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Immigrants - They Get the Job Done

You’re a parent who has aspirations for your children’s future. You think maybe your child will be a great scientist, like Albert Einstein or Enrico Fermi. Perhaps instead you are hoping your child will be a business innovator, someone like Steve Jobs or Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Or maybe you dream of politics, and see your child following in the footsteps of (depending on your political persuasion) Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, John F. Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Ronald Reagan, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, or Paul Ryan.

If you aspire more locally, maybe you’re thinking of models such as Mario Cuomo, Bill De Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, or Ed Koch. Forgive my New York-centricity. If you live in other parts of the country, I’m sure you can come up with your own names.

Maybe you prefer law to politics and see your son or daughter as a future Supreme Court Justice. If you lean right, perhaps you will model him or her after Samuel Alito or John Roberts. Your models on the left might be Sonia Sotomayor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. If you are grounded more in the middle, Anthony Kennedy might be your inspiration.

So public service is not your game? How about sports? Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Sandy Koufax, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Nancy Lieberman, Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Jessica Mendoza, or Tiger Woods might come to mind.

Or music. George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Benny Goodman, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Presley, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey.

Movies. Ingrid Bergman, James Cagney, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hanks.

Literature. Edgar Allan Poe, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Isaac Asimov, Flannery O’Connor.

What all these names have in common is that they, their parents, or their ancestors immigrated to the United States. And this list of names obviously leaves out all of those notable Americans of African descent, whose ancestors weren’t born here and who were torn from their roots and into bondage.

Put it all together, and to say we are a nation of immigrants is an understatement. One of the features that built this country and made it so formidable and so culturally rich has been the contribution of immigrants. Take away those names listed above, and countless others, and we are left much poorer as a nation. Can you even imagine it? Then consider all of those nameless people who never gained fame but who provided generations of labor, intellect, and initiative to develop the American fabric.

Of course, even those whose roots in this country go back multiple generations descended from individuals who moved to this country from Europe. The only non-immigrants in our history are the First Nation people and their descendants. But when we’re talking about immigration as a historical trend, we’re talking about a movement which started around the 1820s.

Throughout American history, there have been many anti-immigrant movements and measures, from the Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and to the Immigration Act of 1924. Nativism and xenophobia are nothing new; nor are they confined to this country.

The policies of our current administration thus appear consistent with this history. The family separation debacle has reached a point where parents were actually deported without being reunited with their children. Now, 711 children have still not been reunited with their parents. Beyond that, the anti-immigrant fervor has spread such that even naturalized Americans are having a reasonable fear that their citizenship could be overturned, as members of the current president’s team are even questioning the long-accepted practice of birthright citizenship. And the Attorney General is restricting the avenues for asylum, while there are reports of asylum seekers being treated like criminals.

(One ray of light: the Republican-led House Appropriations has pushed back against administration policy denying asylum to domestic violence victims. So maybe the administration has started to push even its enablers too far.)

The humanitarian reasons for keeping families together, accepting newcomers, and welcoming those who seek asylum from dangerous conditions all have historical and legal bases; in fact they go back to religious scripture. But the anti-immigrant crowd seems to have put this aside. So how about an economic, rational argument: WIthout immigrants, we’re screwed.

Immigrants constitute an economic and social engine that has consistently driven this country forward, as evidenced by the many names I listed at the beginning of this post (and countless others that I didn’t). Anti-immigrant zealots fail to accept that, in most cases, they too are here because at least one of their grandparents or great-grandparents followed through on a dream of building a life and a family in the United States. They have forgotten that the motto “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) is the traditional motto of the country.

If today’s Know Nothings are successful in restricting immigration and discouraging people from coming here, what will be the impact of their policies? How many 21st century Einsteins, Jobs, Gershwins, Kennedys, DiMaggios, and Newmans will we be turned away, thus precluding them from making their own contributions to our nation?

Of course, in one case, it might be best if we had turned away one 19 century immigrant; if so, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today. His name: Friedrich Trump.

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