I recommend visiting Ellis Island in New York for anyone interested in seeing what America is made of. Of the twelve million who walked up the stairs of the immigration building, there are many more times the number of descendants in the US today. Those people had many children. Catholics and Protestants and Jews. Single men and families. Dressed in rags. Sicilian and Croat and Dutch and Russian and Greek. Almost all women had their hair covered, which is ironic given our criticism of Islamic women who cover their hair.
They were a motley crew, people who had no money or education. You get the feeling that nothing in their lives was easy. They appear like rabble who constantly look down as they walk. Who else would be desperate to climb into cattle boats that had minimal bathrooms in search for a better life? What was life like in those countries that made people flee in droves for our shores?
At Ellis Island you will see and hear the residents of that era using the same anti-immigrant rhetoric as people do today: they’re taking away our jobs; they’re not like us; they stay among themselves and don’t want to be American, they’re cheapening this great country.
Other people have argued that docile people don’t immigrate. Only the people ready to take risks would be bold or strong enough to embark on such a harsh journey, to leave the safety of family and friends and the land they knew, to give up everything and start from scratch. The aggressive came, which might explain this country’s innate aggression. Imagine you going to Zambia, perhaps crossing the border illegally, and selling chewing gum on the street, or going to Bangkok to drive a taxi. Many immigrants didn’t know the language or customs. It’s mighty difficult to get around when you can’t understand.
The waves of immigrants that followed had communities of their own to help them, but everyone had to struggle. Men without a love life—in the frontier US women were scarce—or emotional support, living seventeen to a squalid room. My father, a teacher, had to work the assembly line night shift in a cannery to get rent money.
Children had a much easier time because of their plasticity. My brother and I came to this country when he was nine and I was six, and, as he remembers, we not only learned English in a month, but he knew the batting averages of every San Francisco Giants player in two months. We went to school in San Francisco where at least a quarter of the students were Chinese, who spoke English as we did, played football and baseball together, but their parents spoke only Cantonese.
One Euro-skeptic English MP during the Thatcher era said that the European Union is doomed because they do not have a common language. The idea seems to have traction—it is hard to do business or socialize without a common language, but India has fifteen official languages. Nigeria has a couple of dozen. And language or tradition does not seem to be the EU’s problem; rather they are torn between the conservative-liberal ideology that every country is plagued with.
But over the years the motley crew of immigrants became American. In many cases, more American than those already here, throwing scorn on new arrivals.
America is loved and respected around the world for being a land of immigrants. For one thing, many people in other countries have relatives here. No one can doubt America’s strength—we have been very successful—and who cannot respect our goals of free speech and democracy?—however, much our original ideals are being impinged today. America remains respected, but it is also hated. You can see this hatred by looking at an American Embassy in just about any country. It’s a barbed wire, concrete block fortress. What happened to the country so many wanted to come to, still want to come to? Why do we need to hide behind concrete walls?
The question most people ask is, why do they hate us? Those in an Islamic country are probably asking the same thing: Why do they, the US, hate us? They have the evidence: bombing and intervening in their governments. What are we doing bombing wedding parties in Afghanistan or families in Yemen? And of course these actions are taken by their activists and enlarged. Why do we seem to support dictators? Perhaps we should be asking, why do we hate them? Why can’t we leave them alone?
Immigrants will arrive on our shores and Europe’s shores as long as there is no opportunity in their own countries. This has actually been a boon since, as all studies show, immigrants increase a country’s economy. I personally want to thank all the Mexican migrant workers who toil on our farmlands to provide the fruits and vegetables we buy at the supermarket. I want to thank the immigrants who came to Silicon Valley and developed apps that we use. I want to thank the workers from Ecuador and Guatemala who roofed my house last month.