Our Forgotten Immigrant Roots

2015-09-23-1443022617-1358733-Refugee.jpg As a child of the 1970s I danced around on Saturday mornings to School House Rock's memorable song The Great American Melting Pot. I proudly sang the lyric "it's great to be an American and something else as well," while thinking about my Italian heritage and remembering my family's immigration story. Today, the loudest voices about immigration reform seem to be from the likes of Donald Trump, and I sadly wonder if we have become so American we have forgotten our immigrant roots.

It's not only the xenophobic characterizations of immigrants to the U.S. as terrorists and criminals but also America's lukewarm response to support allies in Western Europe in dealing with the refugee crisis. I hope America's melting pot heritage can guide decision makers to do the right thing here and aboard. Our country can serve as an example about how immigrants and refugees can offer so much to our society.

Angel Merkel, Germany's Prime Minister, said it best, "fear has never been a good adviser," while defending her effort to create a safe haven for refugees and strike down rhetoric about an invasion of European culture. But despite Germany's welcoming spirit, and other countries like Sweden, the vast number of refugees are overwhelming the intention to avert humanitarian crisis. Fear has gripped America before too when tragically Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi occupied countries were denied access to the U.S. under the guise that German spies would penetrate our borders leading up to WWII. These refugees died in concentration camps and were subjected to the worst atrocity of our time. Will we let fear keep us from doing the right thing again?

There has been no consensus on solutions either on the refugee crisis. The EU has called on members to collectively take 160,000 refugees and only just arrived to an agreement. Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait, have shamefully accepted no refugees and have only offered money. Sadly, the U.S. lags in raising the number of refugees allowed in this country and only offered financial assistance. It's worth noting Republicans are divided on allowing Syrian refugees to the U.S. This inaction and divisiveness is a reflection of our own failed attempts for common sense U.S. immigration reform. It's so easily forgotten that America was on the cusp of our own humanitarian crisis when masses of immigrant children who last year traveled alone to the Texas border.

Pope Francis said in 2014 about this event, "A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization - all typical of a throwaway culture - towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world."

Walls will not stem the tide of refugees and immigrants into Europe or America. The death and lifeless image of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy, who drowned crossing the Mediterranean Sea, will forever remind us of the risks people are willing to take for freedom. The hateful conversations and policies by Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Danish government have dehumanized us all.

Although refugees and immigrants arrive to new countries for different reasons, the refugee crisis unfolding in Europe and America's immigration struggles easily reminds me of my own family's immigration from Italy. All American born citizens, unless you are Native American, are descendants of people who came to this country from somewhere else. What's your family's story?

Mine is like many others. My relatives arrive in the early 1900s before World War II and fled an emerging repressive fascist government and the abject poverty they faced in southern and central Italy. It was impossible for them to imagine a prosperous future, so they bravely left for America. From the moment my ancestors stepped on American soil, they became American yet preserved their Italian culture.

Just a few generations later, we have become accomplished entrepreneurs, college graduates, PhDs, teachers, lawyers, nurses, social workers, technology experts and business leaders. Three of my great uncles fought in World War II with one of them awarded the Navy Cross for Valor. I'm forever grateful they were brave enough to take a journey across the Atlantic because my life was forever changed for the better. As a result my daughter now has a world of possibilities at her feet.

At the turn of the 20th century discrimination against the Irish, Italians and other Europeans was rampant, and we still struggle with racism in many forms today, but it has become undeniable that America's cultural diversity has great value. Henry Kissinger, Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein, and many others made profound contributions, while people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tommy Lee (Motley Crue) and Gloria Estefan offered us our lighter pop culture moments. It's also important to note Steve Jobs' family immigrated to the U.S. from Syria.

The vitriol against immigrants and refugees should not shake a fundamental principle that everyone deserves to live in a safe place and have access to employment and educational opportunities. No one has the right to determine that only some of us are allowed these benefits while others are not. Even though many years may have separated us from our immigration history, think hard about where you are from and why your ancestors came to America. You'll realize your story is similar to the plight of refugees and immigrants today who are fleeing to escape war, poverty and religious persecution.