Im­mi­grant story at heart of Amer­ica

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Dr James J Zogby

Im­mi­gra­tion is a per­sonal mat­ter for me, as it is for many Amer­i­cans. Un­less you are a Na­tive Amer­i­can de­scen­dant of the indige­nous peo­ples who were dis­placed by the set­tlers who first came to this coun­try, or an African Amer­i­can de­scen­dant of those who were brought here in bondage as slaves, we are all im­mi­grants or the de­scen­dants of im­mi­grants. Be­cause of the cen­tral role im­mi­gra­tion has played in shap­ing the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, many fam­i­lies are de­fined by why and how their an­ces­tors came and started their lives in this New World, the hard­ships they en­dured, and the suc­cesses they re­al­ized. We tell their sto­ries to one an­other and to our chil­dren be­cause they re­mind us who we are.

I had the priv­i­lege of work­ing with Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, when he ap­pointed me, in 1993, to serve co-chair a project he was launch­ing to sup­port Is­raeliPales­tinian peace. On my way over to the White House to meet with him for the first time, I could not help but be moved as I thought of the sweep of his­tory that had brought me to this point. And so, as we sat in his West Wing of­fice and he asked me to tell him a bit about my­self, I re­sponded: “My father came from a one room, mud floor, stone house in the hills of Le­banon. He en­tered Amer­ica il­le­gally and be­came a cit­i­zen only 50 years ago. To­day, his son is sit­ting with the Vice Pres­i­dent of the United States. It might be a bit ab­bre­vi­ated, sir, but that’s my story.”

My dad and his four broth­ers, two sis­ters, and mother, like mil­lions of oth­ers in the pre- and post-World War I pe­riod, came to Amer­ica to es­cape eco­nomic hard­ship and po­lit­i­cal strife and to find op­por­tu­nity and free­dom. The life they left had been dif­fi­cult. The life they found here also had its share of prob­lems. Like so many other Syr­ian-Le­banese, they were ped­dlers - and were re­viled for it. Called “par­a­sites” and “Syr­ian trash”, they suf­fered harsh dis­crim­i­na­tion. Ef­forts were made to have them ex­cluded. For the flim­si­est of rea­sons many were re­jected upon en­try or sent back. My mother’s father ar­rived at El­lis Is­land with his brother. My ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was ad­mit­ted, his brother was not. My grand­fa­ther was told that the rea­son for his brother’s ex­clu­sion was glau­coma. They never saw each other again, although my grand­fa­ther did learn that his brother ul­ti­mately set­tled in Brazil. I grew up won­der­ing about my cousins, who and where they were.

My father was the last of his fam­ily to ar­rive. By the time he was ready to make the voy­age, visas had been sus­pended for Syr­i­ans. The only way he was able to join his fam­ily was to en­ter the US il­le­gally. He later ben­e­fited from amnesty and be­came nat­u­ral­ized in 1942. On both my mother’s and father’s sides, de­spite the hard­ships they ex­pe­ri­enced, the bet they had placed on risk­ing ev­ery­thing to come to this coun­try paid off. They built busi­nesses, started fam­i­lies, bought homes, ed­u­cated their chil­dren and watched them pros­per.

I tell my Amer­i­can story know­ing that it is the story that can be told by mil­lions of oth­ers. I also know this: when I get into a taxi and meet the im­mi­grant driver from Nige­ria, or go to restau­rant and am waited on by a re­cent im­mi­grant from Tu­nisia, or try to speak (with the few words of Span­ish I know) to the Sal­vadorean woman who comes to clean our of­fice, or park my car and pay the fee to re­cently ar­rived Ethiopian at­ten­dant, or think of the Bos­nian refugee fam­ily that bought and re­fur­bished my fam­ily’s old home in Up­state New York - I know that less than a gen­er­a­tion from now, their chil­dren will be able to tell the same story about the heroic sac­ri­fices their par­ents made to give them the chance to pros­per in free­dom in Amer­ica.

This is who we are. It is the col­lec­tive story of our past and it is the story that still de­fines who we and want to be in the fu­ture. We came from many shores, of­ten es­cap­ing strife and hard­ship, all seek­ing the op­por­tu­nity to pros­per in free­dom. For all of us, im­mi­grants and the de­scen­dants of im­mi­grants, the words in­scribed on the “Lady in the Har­bor” de­fine our sense of what Amer­ica means: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your hud­dled masses yearn­ing to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your team­ing shore. Send th­ese, the home­less, tem­pest-tost to me. I lift my lamp be­side the golden door!” No other words bet­ter de­scribe the prom­ise that Amer­ica had held and still holds out to the world. And so when Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump un­veiled a new im­mi­gra­tion bill this week, that would cut in half the num­ber of refugees as well as the over­all num­ber of im­mi­grants to be al­lowed in, end the lot­tery sys­tem that pro­vided visas for in­di­vid­u­als from coun­tries that have been his­tor­i­cally un­der-rep­re­sented, and fa­vor visa ap­pli­cants with spe­cial skills who speak English, I was shaken to my core.

NOTE: Dr James J Zogby is the Pres­i­dent of the Arab Amer­i­can In­sti­tute

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