Unless you are a native born American Indian, you are either an immigrant or descended from immigrants. One out of every three Americans came through Ellis Island. Unfortunately, many of us do not remember, value, or honor our rich heritage, which is adversely impacted by the stress, speed, and isolation of today’s modern society.
What is our identity? How do we define American? Having uncomfortable conversations about the realization that over fifty percent of our nation will be minorities by 2025 was addressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. He was a keynote speaker at the annual Leadership Florida meeting that I was recently privileged to attend. More importantly, how can we together maximize the power, diversity, culture, richness, and economic advantage of being a welcoming nation? After all, America’s success was built generation upon generation on the shoulders of others from elsewhere.
Famous immigrations to America started in 1620 with about one hundred Pilgrims who were escaping religious persecution. From 1619 to the mid-1800’s, Blacks from Africa arrived against their wills, ultimately resulting in monumental suffering and subsequently splitting the nation with our Civil War. No one ever wants to experience the horror of brother fighting against brother or as Lincoln definitively stated, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We never again want to have anything like the suffering leading up to the Civil War or the war itself.
Additional massive migrations of our ancestors came from northern Europe due to famine during the mid- 1800’s. About one-third of immigrants in this period came from Ireland alone, constituting 4.5 million, settling mostly along the East Coast and still contributing mightily to the cultural richness of these cities.
During the same time, five million German immigrants populated the Midwest including Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, creating the industrial engine of our nation. In the 2000 national census, more Americans claimed German ancestry than any other group. Interestingly, attitudes including xenophobia are not new.
“The influx of newcomers resulted in anti-immigrant sentiment among certain factions of America’s native-born, predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population,” according to an article on immigration written before 1965. “The new arrivals were often seen as unwanted competition for jobs, while many Catholics— especially the Irish—experienced discrimination for their religious beliefs. In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti- Catholic American Party (also called the Know-Nothings) tried to severely curb immigration, and even ran a candidate, former U.S. president Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), in the presidential election of 1856.”
Starting in 1880 and for the next forty years, America received more than twenty million immigrants including my mother
and grandparents. Again religious persecution motivated two million Jews from Eastern Europe to leave their previously stable, productive, and comfortable lives behind. Six hundred thousand Italians migrated during the same time, bringing skills, culture, and intellect to a growing melting pot whose children and grandchildren now have the opportunity to welcome other new waves of contributors to America.
With the two World Wars, Great Depression, the 1959 Communist revolution in Cuba, and other political events as
motivation, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 allowing Americans to sponsor relatives. Today, Asia and Latin America dominate our incoming immigration populations. Immigration has always been stressful and controversial. Nonetheless, we would not be as productive and successful as we currently are without people “Coming to America, TODAY”— Neil Diamond’s 1981 classic capturing an inspirational spirit.
“Immigration is not one size fits all. Most undocumented immigrants cannot simply ‘get legal’ and ‘be a citizen’ by filling out paperwork or paying a fee. • The right way to immigrate was at one time to simply show up. Processing at Ellis Island involved health inspections and naturalization.
• Many of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws.
• Many European immigrants benefited from ‘amnesty’ such as the 1929 Registry Act.
Research has shown that immigrants are more likely to start businesses, grow the economy, and have an overall positive
impact on long-run economic growth. If mass deportation were enacted, as some have suggested, U.S. Gross Domestic
Productivity would drop by $1.6 trillion. Annually, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion in state and local taxes, and pay $13 billion into the Social Security fund without being able to receive Social Security benefits.
A border would be ineffective in restricting immigration as an estimated 40% of all undocumented immigrants were visa
holders, which means they entered the country legally. It has also been shown that immigrants commit less crime than the native-born population. Immigrants are less likely than native-born to be behind bars. Higher immigration is associated with lower crime rates. Between 1990 and 2013, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population increased from 7.9%
to 13.1% and the number of unauthorized immigrants increased from 3.5 million to 11.2 million. During the same period, the violent crime rate declined 48%—which included falling rates of aggravated assault, robbery, rape, and murder. The property crime rate fell 41%, including declining rates of motor vehicle theft, larceny/robbery, and burglary.”
In conclusion, many hard-working immigrants transformed themselves to successful, affluent citizens with hard work,
hardship, sacrifice and the goal of living the American dream. We can be jealous, competitive, and xenophobic; but a better
attitude would be for each of us to celebrate, emulate, and assimilate the positive “can-do” attitude of the pioneers,
explorers, and risk-takers who came before us and share these attributes with our next generation.
After all is said and done, almost all of us have descended from immigrants who made better lives for themselves, their
families, and America