Immigrant story at heart of America
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