Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My grandmother, the "dreamer"

It was the late Spring of 1892 and my paternal grandmother celebrated her first birthday on a ship crossing the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Her parents left their native Poland to seek a new life in America.  My grandmother was a "dreamer."

One hundred and twenty-five years later, President Donald Trump has told "dreamers" that they are no longer welcome in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  (Dreamers are individuals in the U.S. who were brought to the country at an early age without documentation but have assimilated to U.S. culture and have been educated by U.S. school systems.)


President Barack Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June of 2012 after Congress failed to act,  but President Trump has decided to end DACA, ..... maybe.   DACA provided for administrative relief from deportation. It protects eligible immigrant youths who came to the United States when they were children from deportation. DACA gives young undocumented immigrants: 1) protection from deportation and 2) a work permit.

As of the1930 census, thirty-eight years after my grandmother's ocean journey, she was still not a citizen of the United States, but she became a productive member of US society until her death at the age of 92.  I have yet to find any documentation that she ever became a US citizen, although I believe she did sometime after 1930.

From the day the first settlers sailed up the James River and founded Jamestown in 1607, we have been a country of immigrants. Over the past 400 years, we have seen waves of immigrants seek the dreams of a new life in this great country.

Waves of immigration

The first wave was in the late 18th Century and early 19th.  These immigrants came primarily from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany.  The second wave of immigrants came from the 1820s to the 1860s.  These immigrants also came from European countries, primarily Germany, England, and Ireland.  The third wave from 1880 to 1914 were primarily from Eastern European countries, although the Western states saw a flood of immigrants from Asian countries.  The fourth wave, beginning in 1965 and continuing to present day is primarily from Hispanic countries and Asian countries.

The vast majority of these new immigrants became productive members of our melting pot of a society.  There are those who can only point to the bad acts of a very small minority of immigrants as one of their rationales on severely restricting immigration.  To the contrary of the sometimes hyperbolic rhetoric of the anti-immigration folks,  most major studies have shown a negative correlation between the percentage of non-documented immigrant population and crime rates.

Perhaps the wisdom of songwriter George Jackson provides some simple wisdom to the flawed argument of anti-immigrant enthusiasts.  "One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch."

Huddled masses

The United States, at least a majority,  have lived up to the words of the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"  

Unfortunately, a sometimes vocal majority have believed and still believe that those immortal words only applied to them and not to those who came after.  They believe and believed the "golden door" should be slammed shut to prevent the "huddled masses" from over running "their" country.  Few beliefs fly more directly into the face of the beliefs that make our country the last refuge of those "yearning to breathe free."

DACA exemplifies the beliefs that make our country what it is.  It is consistent with the beliefs that allowed our nation to flourish and become one of the greatest nations the world has ever seen.  It helped create a country that is the freest society in the world.  It has not been an easy road, because some vocal minorities have thrown roadblocks in the way.

The Know Nothings

Our history is rife with anti-immigrant sentiment, but a particular example from the 19th Century may help us with the way forward.  In the late 1840s and early1850s, a political movement started known as the "Native American" party or just the "American" party, but most commonly know as the "Know Nothing" party.  (The nickname "Know Nothing" party came about because members of the "American Party" would claim to "know nothing" when asked about their political activities.

The Know Nothings were alarmed by an influx of immigration from Europe.  Many of the new immigrants were Roman Catholics, and this did not sit well with the predominant Protestant population.  The party reached its peak in the 1856 election when former President Millard Fillmore garnered 21.5 percent of the national Presidential vote as the standard bearer of the Know Nothing Party.  He ran on a nativist/anti-immigrant platform.

In 1855, a little known Illinois politician and future President Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend:

"I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty-to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Fortunately for us all, the thoughts of Lincoln won the day, and have won the day for most of the 162 years that have passed since Lincoln wrote to his friend Joshua Speed.  Those same thoughts won the day when my grandmother, the dreamer, came to this country, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

We can only hope that the modern day Know Nothings join their 19th Century Know Nothings on the ash heap of history.