I want to share a story with you. It’s about a family I know – dirt poor and barely scraping by. Amidst instability in their native country, they struggled to keep food on the table, let alone find a job or step foot in a classroom. Their own government had long ago left them behind.
Like so many others, they dreamed of a better life in America, finally managing to cobble enough money together to make the dangerous journey to our shores. But once here, they discovered that life wasn’t so easy. They were resented for their accents, their faith and their foreign ways. They struggled to get an education. Doors were slammed in their faces when they sought work.
So they worked harder. They leaned on each other, they forged a community, and they organized. They built churches and businesses and schools. Their kids went on to college. Slowly but surely, they began to enjoy a measure of success and stability.
When I tell this story, people wait for the last name – Garcia or Vazquez or Rodriguez.
It is Kennedy. Struggling immigrants whose quest for a better life took them from Ireland’s potato famine to Boston’s immigrant barrios.
My father has a memory of my great-grandmother Rose, and I’ll always remember when he told it to me. When he was a kid, he was out playing with friends one day, and she called him inside. He wasn’t exactly excited when she pulled out a big photo album and made him sit down. He was sure she was going to make him look at old family photos for hours.
Instead, she pulled out a stack of carefully folded newspapers, gently nestled in the back of the scrapbook. One after another, she opened them up to the help wanted section. There, she pointed out ad after ad marked with big block letters: “NO IRISH NEED APPLY.”
“50 years later, the opposition still hasn’t updated its talking points.”
As she held them up for my father, her message was clear: Don’t forget where you came from. Don’t forget the blood, sweat and tears that generations before you shed, so you would never feel the sting of prejudice. And don’t ignore the responsibility you now have to carry on that work.
For my family, this became a deeply personal fight. In July of 1964 – nearly a century after his ancestors arrived in this country – a young Attorney General named Robert F. Kennedy sat in front of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington. There, my grandfather urged Congress to act on immigration reform.
Our system, he said, “is a source of embarrassment to us around the world. It is a source of anguish to many of our own citizens…it is a source of loss to the economic and creative strength of our nation as a whole…it is inconsistent with our principles and out of step with our history.”
Today, the opposition my grandfather and other advocates faced half a century ago sounds eerily familiar. Immigrants will flood our cities and towns. They will take American jobs. They will threaten American lives. They will poison American culture. They aren’t from here. They aren’t like us.
50 years later, the opposition still hasn’t updated its talking points. 50 years later, our broken immigration system is still a source of embarrassment, but worse, of anguish and loss. And 50 years later, we face a threat unlike almost any other in recent history: a president who built an entire campaign – and now an administration – on the scapegoating of immigrant families.
We have watched President Trump threaten our most fundamental American values with border walls and ‘bad hombres.’ We have heard his racist epithets. We have seen his hasty executive orders, designed to jumpstart deportation and block those seeking refuge on our shores. And we have stood in horror as his administration sweeps the country with raids that appear unprecedented in their scope and synchronicity – going so far as to target DREAMers and victims of domestic violence.
They tell us this is business as usual. But we know in our hearts that it’s not. This is the new agenda of a president who has made it clear – in painful, prejudiced and petty terms ― what he thinks of American immigrants.
Which is why I want to deliver one message to our immigrant families today: President Trump doesn’t speak for all of us. His hateful immigration policies are opposed by an enormous segment of leaders in Washington who do not take your patriotism for granted. We are grateful for everything you contribute to our communities, our culture and our economy. We are aware of what you’ve sacrificed and risked to be a part of our United States. And we are by your side in the fight ahead.