Celebrating a Nation of Immigrants

Immigration status neither confers nor denies basic human rights. How anyone arrives in America does not affect their status as humans. We do not have a spotless record and to pretend we do is shameful. Fortunately not ubiquitous, our inexcusable cases of exploitation are a close kept family secret.

Happy Independence Day – this week none other than Rush Limbaugh began framing the right wing excuses for the behavior of Americans in Lawrenceville and, now, Murrieta, north of San Diego. The purpose of Ellis Island, he bloviated, was to halt the spread of disease; poking at a spot that sparks fervor aimed at the children who've crossed our border. He sarcastically mocked the words on the Statue of Liberty. And, he seemed to argue that we are not a nation of immigrants.

Tell that to the 11% of Virginians who are.

Recently, while waiting for a connection after a cancelled flight in Budapest, I struck up a conversation with a woman who I'd heard speaking English. Turned out that she is in the process of establishing residency in Germany. A naturalized American citizen, her family immigrated to the United States from Estonia after World War II. It had been a struggle to gain that status and it only occurred by happenstance. Sitting in a park in devastated Tallinn, her father struck up a conversation about his dream with a nun who coincidentally was with a Catholic organization working with sponsors for immigrants to the United States.

The family was eventually granted entry status and guided to settle in a small northwest Pennsylvania town where there was a job for her father. It was a company town, essentially owned by his employer. To "help" them settle, they were given credit at the company stores, payment for which was automatically deducted from his wages. It did not take her mother long to come to the realization that they were gradually falling further and further into debt with small hope of escaping a spiral into tacit servitude.  

These were immigrants who learned the harsh lesson of the American free labor market. But the hardships of enduring the war had prepared them to take risks and they did so by escaping potential bondage for a location just outside Detroit. Over time, her father achieved the American dream and the family thrived. This immigrant child is now retired and, like up to 70% of Italians who immigrated during periods of the heaviest migration in the 1800's, is expatriating.

Limbaugh, champion of bitter knuckleheads, argues that "only" 12 million people immigrated through Ellis Island to support (what I think was) his point that we aren't an immigrant nation. I doubt his devotees would use the word "only" to describe the number of children involved in our current debacle. But if 12 million isn't significant, how are less than 100,000? 

This morning is the annual Monticello Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization Ceremony. This group of new American citizens will not be representative of the migrant population in the United States. They will be more diverse and more successful; just the way we like our immigrants.

That woman's journey from Tallinn to America and back to Europe is very likely to be the story of many migrants now in the United States. Yes, their lives here are better than from where they came. But it's far from easy and often unfair and unjust. Two wrongs do not make a right. Imagine the plights of those who come here without status and sponsorship. What we are doing as a nation is a far greater harm than anything these migrants collectively might impose upon us.

The view we and the world are witnessing from Lawrenceville to Murrieta puts a lie to those words on the Statue of Liberty. I am not quite certain what the protesters would suggest we do with these children of Republican policy in Central America, but they represent to the world our humanity or lack thereof. Migration is a fact worldwide. There are and have been refugee camps across Europe for decades. Now that there is a market for migration into North America, we are going to have refugee camps here. Refugee is a special status and most of these children do not qualify. But those who do not still deserve to be treated with dignity, not disdain bordering on hate. The lies provide cover among those who lack humanity, but history will not be kind.

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