The debate over U.S. immigration policy is a very personal one for me. It’s about my family’s history and the hardships they faced coming to America. It is also about who we are and who we aspire to be as an American people.
In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, my father’s family, like many others in the mountains of Lebanon, facing economic hardship, sent their oldest son, Habib, then only 14 years old, to America to start a new life, plant roots, and pave the way for the rest of the family to join him.
A few years after Habib left, facing increased pressures from the raging World War, the family was forced to leave their village seeking safety in the Bekaa Valley. Conditions were not good and my grandfather became ill and died in exile leaving my grandmother with six children, the oldest being my father, Joseph, who was then 20.
The war ended, the family returned to their village, and after a time learned that Habib had opened a small business and was asking that they join him in America. They secured visas and embarked on the arduous journey to the New World.
My father was waylaid in Marseille where in an act of great kindness he gave his visa to a Lebanese woman who was visa-less and desperate to join her family in the U.S. While he thought he could apply and receive another visa, he was shocked to discover that visas had been frozen for Syrians (which is what the Lebanese were called then).
In the 1920s, the U.S. Congress was in the grips of a nativist xenophobic fervor. Congressional debates termed Syrians as “parasites” with one Senator saying, “we don’t need any more Syrian trash coming here.” Visas for Syrians and other “undesirable countries” were to remain frozen for almost three decades.
Facing an uncertain and lonely future in France, my father secured a position on a ship leaving for Canada. On arrival, he disembarked and eventually made his way across the border into the U.S. to find his family in Upstate New York.
Undocumented, he lived in fear for a decade, sometimes forced into hiding, until in the mid-1930s he benefited from an amnesty program. He finally became a proud naturalized American citizen in 1942.
My family’s trajectory in the New World is like that of many immigrants. I often look at the picture of my grandmother and her seven children when they were first united on my father’s arrival. They looked gaunt and a bit haggard, but with the proud smiles of a family that after a decade of war, loss, and the hardship they had to endure, knew they were beginning a new life together.
From that little band of eight, great things were to follow. Collectively, three generations of Zogbys are an extended family that has founded dozens of businesses creating employment for hundreds of our fellow Americans. Among us are doctors, lawyers, professors and teachers, elected and appointed officials, members of the military and law enforcement, and others who have distinguished themselves in other forms of public and social service. All of them, are proud contributing members of American life.
In short, this is my story. I am the son of an undocumented immigrant from a once reviled country and a member of a family that benefited from provisions that allowed for families to be unified.
What, to me, is remarkable about our story is that it is not remarkable, at all. Millions of Americans can tell the same story because it is the American story. It is who we are.
Given this personal history, I recoil in disgust at the way some Republicans and President Trump have attempted to reframe the terms of the immigration discussion and, in the process, have denigrated our American story. “Family unification” has come to be termed as “chain migration”. The “diversity lottery” that has provided opportunities for immigrants from countries once excluded from the old quota system that favored northwest Europe, is now spoken of with a snarl (or, more recently, by our President, as immigrants from “shithole” countries). Immigrants and refugees from the country from which my family fled, escaping war and hardship, are now banned. My father would be described as an “illegal”. “Compassionate Amnesty” that allowed my father to stay and become a citizen is now a taboo term. And, if it were not for amnesty, my sister, brother, and I would be seen as “anchor babies” or as “Dreamers”.
And so, this is a very personal issue for me and should be for all Americans. As I look at the Republicans who are leading the charge against immigration and those working to reframe the debate casting immigrants and refugees in disgraceful and racist terms, I see descendants of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Jews — all of whom were once reviled, locked out, and victims of bigotry.
Tragically, this inclination to forget our history, to succeed in America and then try to close the door and exclude those seeking to take advantage of the same opportunities that benefited our ancestors, is also part of our American story.
In every generation, these two threads of our national narrative — the one that advocated for openness and the other that was exclusionary — have been in competition. In the past, because of hard work and the fact that some leaders listened to “the voices of our better angels”, the vision of the welcoming “Lady in the Harbor” has won out. It is our fight today to make sure she wins again. The soul of America is at stake. We dare not lose.
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