My grandparents, on both sides, were immigrants to America in the early 20th century. They were looking for a better life. They were escaping tyranny and persecution. They were human beings doing what human beings have done for millennia. Originally, in Africa, where our species began, there was famine, drought, danger from wild animals, raids from violent neighbors who wanted more of what they already had, catastrophic climate change: the same reasons people migrate today. They heard through the grapevine things were better elsewhere–more food, more water, better weather, less fighting, greener pastures, fewer dangerous animals. So they got together and talked about how they’d get out, where’d they go, and how they’d get there. Much like today. They were tired, frustrated, angry, scared for their kids who were looking sad and underfed. Just like today. They had no money, no maps, no guarantees. Just someone’s finger pointing north or west or up to a star to follow. Just like today. They packed whatever belongings that would fit on their backs or their mules or their carts, and when the day was right, with the courage of great warriors, set off on foot in the direction of that trusted finger. And they continued, with their children, their elders, their dogs, whatever and whoever were capable of the unknowns that lie ahead–forests, jungles, deserts, raging rivers, vast bodies of water, fierce predators, heat, cold, storm, mountains, valleys, unfriendly people. Just like today.
Some made it. Some didn’t. Still they left what they didn’t like to seek a better place for themselves and their families. Just like today.
We hear a lot of negatives about immigration here in America and throughout Europe these days. Republicans here and right wing politicians in Europe have paved a path to power on how much fear they can generate by presenting immigrants as the enemy: people who are coming to take something away from the settled citizens of their cities and countrysides. The con man Trump ranted about rapists and drug dealing Mexicans who were sweeping across the border like invading Mongol hordes on the steepes of Europe in much earlier times. His campaign strategy was to frighten, to alarm, to deceive, to warn, to mesmerize his flock like an evangelical preacher does with the Devil and sin and salvation. We get reports of Abbott from Texas and DeSantis from Florida shipping migrants to Blue states to score political points and weaponize simple, innocent people to show their base how they deal with immigrants,slurring and smearing the word like it was something dirty, something dangerous, something disgusting, until their congregations, their constituents began almost tasting these people, as they might a foul piece of meat.
In 1910, my grandfather, a poor, but proud baker from the Ukraine, which at that time was part of the vast Pale of Settlement–you know the expression “beyond the Pale”–decided there had to be a better way than poverty and pogroms and the Czar’s crazy decrees and laws confining Jews to a harsh and hopeless way of life that was going nowhere but to hell. He knew of others in his area who had fled to America, had found decent work, relative safety, and finally, a future.
That was it: There was no future in his Ukrainian life. And a human being needs to have the possibility of a future to make the present palatable enough to find moments of contentment and happiness. So, with the courage of a warrior, he left and began a journey on foot to find a future. It is not unlike what the migrant of today, from Nicaragua, from Venezuela, from Syria, from Sudan, from Mexico, from China, from Russia, from El Salvadore, from Guatamala, from Morocco, seeks. A future.
My maternal grandfather got settled, saved his money and sent for my grandmother. He worked hard through the depression as a baker, raised a family, who eventually raised families and became hard working members of society. My father, the son of immigrants from Germany, was a builder and contractor who built houses after World War II for returning GIs and others who saw our country grow and flourish. We live in a country built by immigrants and the children of immigrants. We are a true melting pot and proof that a melting pot can provide a fine-flavored stew.
Just as in ancient times, the world is pregnant with oppressed and often impoverished people. And just as in ancient times, those people want a future and will risk any means to find it. This force to find a hopeful future cannot be stopped by repressive laws or border walls or disengenuous, self-serving politicians. It cannot be stopped by white supremacists or bigots or racists or fascists or communists. Eventually, the walls erected to stop the hopes of people looking for a future will crumble as did the Tower of Babel of Bibical times, as did the Berlin Wall, as did the Iron Curtain, as did Rome, as did the Confederate South, as did the racist indigenous schools of Canada and the U.S., as did the KKK, as did Hitler and the Third Reich, as did the Pale of Settlement.
Today we have our own examples of efforts to stop immigration: Brexit in Britain; Rule 42 being misused in America; Orban in Hungary; Le Pen in France, Un in North Korea, Xi in China, Putin in Russia, the military in Myanmar, Castro in Cuba, and the Republican Party in the United States. These are all racist at heart, for most welcome immigration from white, prosperous countries.If we are to learn anything from the past, immigration cannot be stopped. It can be fairly controlled but cannot be stopped.
Why? Because people who do not have a future, feel they deserve a future. And they are right! Every human being deserves a chance at a hopeful future, and governments and institutions that try to deny them of that are doomed to failure. Over time, the migrants will find a way to cross the English Channel, to float across the Mediterranean, to breach America’s southern border. Damn, there’s even people who’ve hidden in the landing gear of planes or the rudders of huge ships to get out of the horrors of their own country!
The answer? In our country, Congress needs to rewrite the rules that allow some in and reject others. Republicans want nothing of rewriting such rules, as they continue to weaponize migrants in order to gain votes and put Democrats, dedicated to a fair approach and realizing the importance immigrants have played in building this country, on the defensive. But Democrats must seek out and find reasonable Republicans in Congress who will defy their intransigent leadership and work with Dems to find a reasonable solution to the immigrant crisis we now face. This is vital to our moving forward as a democracy.
Three years after my grandfather arrived, he saved enough money to send for his wife, my beloved grandmother. And she then made the dangerous journey on foot out of the Pale to a ship in Germany to Philadelphia where most of my family settled. If they hadn’t, or had been rejected at their port of entry, for lack of funds or their religion or their inability to speak English, I would not be here now writing this screed.
We need immigrants. And they desperately need us. Contact your representatives in Congress in this new year–particularly your Republican reps–and urge them to find reasonable and fair ways to accept immigrants. Personally, hire legal immigrants when possible. Patronize their businesses. They are no different from you and I in wanting a future and having a secure present.
May your New Year be full of hope, of good health, of prosperity, of compassion and kindness, and of love. Be well, my friends.