Who really gets the job done? America’s immigrants
Border states are doing the rest of the nation a backhanded favor by busing immigrants to cities and states away from the border. Doing so forces us to understand that the issue of immigration is a national dilemma. Beyond the challenges to social services and civic infrastructure, which must certainly be addressed, it seems clear we need to refocus our approach to immigration to America. And while we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves of what makes America so alluring.
Immigrants created this nation, and in Rhode Island in particular, we have generally been welcoming. Not for nothing, the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty that includes “Give me your tired, your poor,” was written by Emma Lazarus, whose family summered in Newport in the 1860s.
When my paternal grandparents came to America from the Russia/Poland border in the early days of the 20th century, they were leaving untenable conditions for Jews in Eastern Europe. They, and many others like them, settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and took blue collar jobs in the NYC garment industry: she as a hatmaker, he as a furrier.
Around the same time, immigrants were coming to Rhode Island from Ireland, Italy, French-speaking Canada, Portugal, the Azores and Cape Verde, and Eastern Europe. These immigrants came for work in the active manufacturing economy that grew in the north of our State after the Industrial Revolution. In 1910, two thirds of Rhode Island’s population were first- and second-generation immigrants, according to EnCompass, the Rhode Island Historical Society’s digital archive.
The flood of late 19th/early 20th century immigrants were seeking the same things as those who came in the 17th and 18th centuries — freedom from persecution, economic opportunities, and a better life for their children and grandchildren.
We need to refocus our approach to immigration to America. And while we’re at it, let’s remind ourselves of what makes America so alluring.
One of the delights of “Hamilton, an American Musical” is the reminder that many of the heroes of the American Revolution were necessarily immigrants from elsewhere. “Immigrants, they get the job done,” sing Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. And historically, that is what immigrants to America have done – they are here to work, and they fill the employment needs of the communities in which they settle.
But “Hamilton” does something else. By filling the cast with people of color, the descendants of immigrants — willing and unwilling — it highlights the conflict that remains inherent in this discussion, and I think gets to the heart of why some Americans are very conflicted about continuing to be welcoming, and why immigrants have faced discrimination.
What we often hear is a concern that America will change if we accept large numbers of people who are, or seem to be, very different from us. It is not new, this reflexive resistance. Chinese immigration was restricted, for example, in the late 19th century after large numbers arrived in previous decades.
The fear that “who we are” is threatened by accepting those who bring different worldviews, habits and traditions may be natural, but it completely ignores who we actually are. We have always been diverse; it is a misunderstanding of our history and our principles to insist now that we are a white country, or a Christian one. The energy, creativity and hunger for success that immigrants bring has historically driven our economy, and the multiple cultural influences shaped our character. It is no accident that we continue to attract those who are “yearning to breathe free,” as Lazarus put it. American exceptionalism, if it exists, is a result of our openness to all those who hope to build better lives.
I am not blind to the fact that bringing immigrants into our body politic and culture is not uncomplicated, and it is more difficult when immigration is massive, and poorly regulated. I think that is the point.
We need to be focusing on how to do better at helping new arrivals become productive and successful Americans, rather than simply arguing about how hard to slam the door.