I Am An Immigrant

<strong>Climbing into America, Ellis Island, 1908. </strong>The man wearing a homburg and carrying a suitcase was among the m
Climbing into America, Ellis Island, 1908. The man wearing a homburg and carrying a suitcase was among the middle class immigrants—as Donald Trump’s grandfather may have been. He was trained as a hairdresser but became a hotelier among other things once he got to the U.S.

There’s a new website to which you can upload your picture, iamanimmigrant.com. It’s fun to look at and joining it says that you stand with all immigrants to the United States.

The immigrant issue is special to me. I immigrated in 1970. After three years on a student visa, I had fallen in love with the country, fallen in love with a man, and I never looked back.

I’ve been a citizen for over thirty years and consider myself a patriot but not a nationalist. That means I’m all about the people who live here and take responsibility for what America stands for in the minds of other countries (good or bad), but I’m not about ancestry as a definition of belonging. It’s America, for heaven’s sake—that kind of thinking doesn’t even make sense here. The constitution begins, “We the people,” and although some of the Founders wanted the phrase to be exclusionary, others among them knew that it would eventually embrace us all.

Let me admit up front, we immigrants are a mixed bag. We come with a lot of hope and expectations, but after that it all diverges due to ambition, education, and the usual stuff life throws at one. This is a big country with a variety of people, weather, landscapes, and opportunities. Most of it will feel unfamiliar to an immigrant, no matter whether she has family to welcome her, or if he lands with all his resources packed into one small suitcase. An immigrant will need a job and a place to live. He or she might need language classes. It’s a big undertaking.

Immigrant Family in the Baggage Room of Ellis Island, 1905
Immigrant Family in the Baggage Room of Ellis Island, 1905

A quick aside: Only one group of people has been able to expect a leg up from the U.S. government. Until two weeks ago, when President Obama rescinded the order, Cubans got nine thousand dollars as a thank-you for immigrating—but no one else did. It was a Cold War strategy that had been in place for the last fifty years. Should we consider revitalizing this policy and offering similar assistance to disaffected Muslims? It’s a thought—it worked before.

The original European immigrants were younger sons of European nobility, soldiers, debtors, servants, farmers, dreamers, homosexuals, thieves, prostitutes, murderers, and pirates among others, many looking for a new venue in which to recreate themselves. There were Africans, victimized in the largest forced emigration in the history of the world. There were “free” laborers such as the Chinese. There were wage slaves of all nations. There were Jews, Christians, and members of all the other major religions as well as free thinkers and members of radical sects remembered only in history. There were engineers to build railroads and bridges, wood carvers to work on altars and carousels, brewers to make beer and bourbon. After World War II, there was the influx from the mid-century “brain drain,” when educated people left from Europe, India, and Asia and sought better lives here. Always there were writers, students, and scoundrels…everyone came, just as the Statue of Liberty invited them to. America absorbed us all.

In the twenty-first century, things changed. There was a one-day, one-sided battle that we know as 9/11.

No matter what wars we embarked upon afterwards, the outcome of that one event is still in question. Rather than setting in motion a considered strategy, which should have been in place since the earlier attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, we resorted to Islamophobia and followed our leaders blindly into a war with the wrong people. We did not attempt reprisals against any of the countries to which these terrorists belonged—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAR, and Lebanon. A successful attack on our home soil caused us to lose our nerve immediately, as well as our moral compass. Torture, illegal detainment—we threw out the Geneva Convention in a violent and terrified knee-jerk reaction. Our government chose to view Islam as a homogeneous entity and tenuously used that as an excuse. And most of us followed along.

So, in that way, they won. We missed a step and forgot who we were. We injured “America” with friendly fire. We plunged into a mess from which we have still not extracted ourselves. The “W” Bush wars were fought against symbolic stand-ins for the enemies we have neither faced nor openly forgiven. We have never confronted the Saudis, for example, despite the fact that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were from Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden is a member of their royal family. Trump is proud of his dealings with the Saudis. During a campaign rally in 2016, he said, "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”[i]

Is that all it takes—our own self-interest? If so, then the terrorists did win. Bin Laden stated some time before the attack that he intended to make America “a shadow of its former self.”[ii] Have we become just that?

9/11 might be a reason to put Saudi Arabia on a ban list, but, while Trump and his top advisors have repeatedly offered 9/11 as a justification for banning immigrants from seven countries with large Muslim populations, they have failed to observe that none of the citizens from those lands have ever killed an American in an act of terror.

It’s crucial to realize that 9/11 was a battle to destroy our sense of who we are: one America, with people of different ethnicities, religions, genders, and skin colors working alongside each other and at least nominally equal. Not for us the nationalist divisions of a place like Dubai, where UAE families are a privileged over-class, and to which workers of all other nations may come and toil but never belong. Those of Trump’s followers who see the ban as a “strong” statement in the face of ISIS and other Jihadist groups have lost the war of 9/11. They have reneged on their own or their ancestors’ experience of America for its open door and equal opportunities. They have accepted the shadow.

We know that there are always bad apples and troubled souls in every group. The British transported criminals to the Colonies decades before they expatriated them to Australia. In modern times, Castro sent us criminals among the refugees allowed to leave in the Mariel boatlift. In any mix, there might be criminals, or people who turn to crime, but there will be doctors, teachers, bakers, butchers, all ready to make America great now, not in some dimly-lit tomorrow.

It’s not that we don’t sometimes moan and complain. There was a difficult family on the Mayflower whose patriarch eventually murdered a fellow colonist. Another man was hung for robbery and a third was a bigamist. Since bigamy is non-violent and there were a hundred-and-two people on the ship, let’s say that two percent were definitely undesirables. (The rate is about the same for immigrants today, but immigrants are a much smaller percentage of our overall criminal population.) So what if the whole enterprise of the British colonies had stopped there? Suppose there had been a way to halt the influx—then North America would be Native American and/or Spanish today. The Spanish colonies were well established long before the first Englishman set foot in Plymouth. No, no more dubious Brits with their anti-social tendencies—they were enemies of Spain anyway. And let’s say, no Protestants. Why not? Spain was involved in a centuries-long war against non-Catholics: first Muslims and then Jews and Protestants. The Spanish brutally exterminated a French Protestant settlement in Florida in 1564, essentially enforcing their immigration policy long before the Mayflower even landed. If they had gained and maintained control of the whole East Coast, a ban on Protestants would have denied entry to Donald Trump’s grandfather, who was from a Protestant part of Germany[iii], and to his mother, a Scot, from whom he claims his Presbyterianism. Instead, all sorts of immigrants flooded in and we became who we are, Americans.

We cannot give in to fear. Stuff happens. Things go wrong, but we aren’t cowards. The Land of the Free can be hard work to maintain, but if we can’t keep the lights on, who are we?

Taking the Oath of Allegiance, Naturalization Ceremony held at the Grand Canyon, 2015
Taking the Oath of Allegiance, Naturalization Ceremony held at the Grand Canyon, 2015

i] Rebecca Savransky, “Trump registered eight companies in Saudi Arabia during campaign,” The Hill, November 11, 2016

[ii] Jeremy Warner, “9/11: How Osama bin Laden caused our banking meltdown and financial crisis,” London Telegraph, September 8, 2011

[iii] Angela Dewan and Madleen Schroeder “Trump's grandfather 'kicked out of Germany for avoiding military service’” CNN November 23, 2016