IMMIGRATION AND HISTORY

My sister likes to forward to me chain letters. No, she does not send me entreaties to invest in an African oil scheme, but rather, political opinion pieces. The latest sample read:

So many letter writers have based their arguments on how this land is made up of immigrants. Ernie Lujan for one, suggests we should tear down the Statue of Liberty because the people now in question aren't being treated the same as those who passed through Ellis Island and other ports of entry.

Maybe we should turn to our history books and point out to people like Mr. Lujan why today's American is not willing to accept this new kind of immigrant any longer. Back in 1900 when there was a rush from all areas of Europe to come to the United States, people had to get off a ship and stand in a long line in New York and be documented. Some would even get
down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. They made a pledge to uphold the laws and support their new country in good and bad times. They made learning English a primary rule in their new American households and some even changed
their names to blend in with their new home.

They had waved good bye to their birth place to give their children a new life and did everything in their power to help their children assimilate into one culture. Nothing was handed to them. No free lunches, no welfare, no labor laws to protect them. All they had were the skills and craftsmanship they had brought with them to trade for a future of prosperity.

Most of their children came of age when World War II broke out.
My father fought along side men whose parents had come straight over from Germany , Italy , France and Japan . None of these 1st generation Americans ever gave any thought about what country their parents had come from. They were Americans fighting Hitler, Mussolini and the Emperor of Japan . They were defending the United States of America as
one people.

When we liberated France , no one in those villages were looking for the French-American or the German American or the Irish American. The people of France saw only Americans. And we carried one flag that represented one country. Not one of those immigrant sons would have thought about picking up
another country's flag and waving it to represent who they were. It would have been a disgrace to their parents who had sacrificed so much to be here. These immigrants truly knew what it meant to be an American. They stirred the melting pot into one red, white and blue bowl.

And here we are with a new kind of immigrant who wants the same rights and privileges. Only they want to achieve it by playing with a different set of rules, one that includes the entitlement card and a guarantee of being faithful to their mother country. I'm sorry, that's not what being an American is all about.

I believe that the immigrants who landed on
Ellis Island in the early 1900's deserve better than that for all the toil, hard work and sacrifice in raising future generations to create a land that has become a beacon for those legally searching for a better life. I think they would be appalled that they are being used as an example by those waving foreign country flags.

And for that suggestion about taking down the Statue of Liberty , it happens to mean a lot to the citizens who are voting on the immigration bill. I wouldn't start talking about dismantling the United States just yet.

(signed)
Rosemary LaBonte

I have included punctuation and spacing just as it was sent to me, as well as the person's name, since this has been widely picked up and is all over the internet. I do not know if Ms. LeBonte is a real person, or if she is actually the author of this piece, so the name is used here for identification purposes only.

Why am I dealing with this at all? Because there are so many historical inaccuracies it bears rebutting. My first book was on labor and immigrant history, so I have some expertise in this area.
The writer sets up a false dichotomy, between earlier immigrants who loved America, and recent ones who hate our country. This is not accurate; the historical experience of Americans, then and now, is far different.

Let us start with one important fact: in the period around 1900, when the past wave of immigration was at its height, 44 out of every 100 immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe went home. Given that one of the largest groups in this cohort--Jews--did not have that option, it is fair to guess that 50%--half--of this wave did not stay in the United States.

The reasons they returned were many and diverse, but let's look at the two biggest. First, many people succeeded in this new land. Some remained, but others took their new fortune back home to Europe, and became landowners and bigshots. They chose to invest in their homeland, in other words, rather than America. Not the image depicted by Ms. LePonte.

Second, were those who couldn't make it here. This should surprise no one: America was a rough land, that did not treat newcomers gently. There are many pieces by immigrants decrying their discovery that the streets were paved with anything but gold. Like in any situation, some people could not find the right job, the right approach, and did not prosper. Of these, some persevered, some languished, some died, and many, for understandable reasons, returned home.

There is also the notion that earlier generations of immigrants revered America and rejected their homeland. This is totally false. I have looked at many, many foreign language newspapers and documents from this era, and witnessed countless images of non-American flags, plus paens to the country of the writer's birth. Theodore Roosevelt for example, co-founded the American-Irish Historical Society (a superb organization, by the way). Note the title carefully; this was Teddy's idea, because he wanted to stress the American tie, rather than the ethnic heritage which was the norm at that time. Again, fierce nationalism prevailed, based on ties to foreign lands.
I
nstead, the reality was that many of these organizations, these communities, forged a new identity, both American and ethnic at the same time. Including maintaining the language of their birth, not giving it up, as Ms. LePonte alleges. When I lived in Chicago's Back of the Yards in the 1980s, the Polish National Alliance ran classes at nominal cost to teach youngsters the language of their forefathers. Parents enrolled their children, not because they rejected their American identity in any way, shape or form; they simply wanted their children to be part of their ethnic culture as well. Similarly, my wife grew up in an Italian-American family. They were bilingual; why should we expect anything different from families today? My parents were also bilingual, my sister and I are not. My parents felt that this lapse was a failure on their part in maintaining our heritage; not a symptom of anti-americanism, of patriotism or the lack of it.

And that really is the point. I am not trying to dismiss the story of any group of immigrants--then or now; it would be awkward for me to do so, as the son and grandson of immigrants. Instead, I am arguing for a history that captures us in all of our humanity. American history, in other words, is made by human beings, and we are complex creatures. Simple explanations--such as the notion of a "Greatest Generation" that ignores the shattered families and juvenile delinquency caused by the economic hardship that also inspired such extreme sacrifice--rarely captures what an era is like, or how these lives were lived. I do not doubt, for example, that an extremist has called for tearing down the Statue of Liberty, but statistically, the vast majority of new immigrants are raising families, working and paying taxes, sending their kids to school, and adding to the American tapestry. Diatribes like Ms. LePonte's ignore the complexity of our heritage, of our very lives.

And as to the veterans. I have been to the cemetery on Omaha Beach, and seen the names she speaks of. And have wept for them. But has she ever seen the names and faces of those who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan? I look at the listing every time they appear, in the Army Times, or in my local newspaper; they deserve no less. There are many, many names from the new immigrants there as well, individuals just ike those from her generation, who sacrificed all for their country. They also deserve our respect, and our American tears.