Throughout its history, the United States has thought of itself as a society of underdogs. Most Americans have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who moved to America from other lands with little more than their own energy, determination and willingness to work hard for a better life.
My wife, Jan Schakowsky, is the daughter of two Jewish immigrants – one from Ukraine and the other from Lithuania. As a little girl she used to visit her grandfather on Walton Street in Chicago. In the barn behind the house, she would visit Teddy, the horse her grandfather hitched to the cart he used each day to sell fruits and vegetables in the neighborhood. For years, he made his living by hauling bags of potatoes and other vegetables up the back stairs of Chicago. He put all four of his kids through college that way. Now my wife ― his granddaughter ― is a member of Congress.
My own great-grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria who opened a general store in Moscow, Texas.
Another young German ― a 16-year-old who became a barber ― immigrated to the U.S. a little over a hundred years ago. His grandson, Donald Trump, is now president.
And before him, a young mixed-race son of a Kenyan immigrant and a woman from Kansas made the amazing journey from his upbringing in Hawaii to become the first African-American U.S. president.
That’s the story of America. People who have come here with nothing. They worked hard, overcame the odds and have created the most dynamic, entrepreneurial and exciting society on the planet.
This week, as the Senate debates and votes on a variety of immigration proposals ― including protecting Dreamers from deportation, border security and the White House’s “framework” to severely limit family reunification and eliminate the immigration lottery system ― remember that story.
Because Trump’s proposal would not just change our policies. It would also change the identity of America ― our own understanding, and the world’s understanding, of who we are.
Of course, not everyone came here of their own free will. Many of the Americans who have built this country were the subject of the real “chain migration.” They were brought here in chains ― in the bellies of slave ships ― to be servants to earlier immigrants from Scotland, England or France. Others, including the original human occupants of this land ― Native Americans who came here from Siberia ― were the subject of genocidal pogroms by some of those later American immigrants.
But the American identity of our myths and aspirations has always rejected the idea that social status should be conferred by birth rather than achievement.
The heroes and heroines that embody that American ideal are self-made people who start with very little, overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and give their children a better life. They are not aristocrats, they are not princes, they are not people like Donald Trump who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. They are worthy of respect because of what they achieve and give to others ― not because they were born to privilege.
That is the ideal to which America has always, although often unsuccessfully, aspired.
Immigrants brought with them the entrepreneurial spirit ― the desire for achievement ― that is quintessentially American. And that should be no surprise. What kind of person abandons their life in another land, picks up stakes and relies on their own energy and ingenuity to build a better life in a completely unknown society? People who are risk takers ― people who have the pluck, self-confidence and work ethic to be successful.
Rather than attract those risk takers, Trump wants to change our legal immigration system to require immigrants to be wealthy, accomplished and educated.
Trump wants an America like his private club, Mar-a-Lago. You get in if you’re already successful, but not if you’re an ordinary person working hard to create a life.
That’s not the spirit of America.
And, by the way, notwithstanding Trump’s attempts to demonize immigrants as dangerous, the fact is that crime rates among immigrants are lower than they are among the rest of the population.
America should welcome immigrants who have worked hard to get a good education. But we must also accept ordinary people who come here equipped only with their drive and their dreams.
America is also a country of families. To hear them tell it, the Republican Party is the party of “family values.” But not when it comes to immigration. They are perfectly happy to destroy the families of Dreamers ― young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children. And now the party wants to restrict family immigration, rejecting the American value that a sister or grandparent or sibling is very much family.
The spirit of America is Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty. Referencing the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,” Lazarus’ poem was titled “The New Colossus:”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Not: “Give us your successful, your wealthy, your elites, your royalty yearning to make a financial killing or launder their money in Trump condos.”
As negotiations on an immigration deal proceed, it is critical that Senate Democrats and patriotic Republicans limit any deal to protecting Dreamers and smart border security measures – and unequivocally reject any attempt tie these issues to Trump’s extreme immigration measures.
We simply cannot allow Trump and the Republicans to change this country from a society built on a foundation of hard work and sacrifice into one where the only people allowed to become Americans are those who already come from backgrounds of entitlement and privilege.
Robert Creamer is a longtime political organizer and strategist, and author of Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win. He is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.