Given the anti-immigration rhetoric proudly proclaimed by our candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, it seems to be the right time for me to post an abridged version of a story that I wrote last summer to commemorate America’s 239th birthday.
I AM AN IMMIGRANT
Xenophobia: (intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries) Such a harsh word. We don’t use it. It puts the blame on us.
Illegal immigrant; undocumented alien: Much more politically correct. It puts the blame on them.
Homeland security: Who can argue with that?
Consider…since the 9/11 terrorist attacks Americans have been obsessed with “homeland security.” Millions of dollars have been spent as our intelligence agencies have been reorganized. A new cabinet Department of Homeland Security has been created. Currently we are consumed with the idea of turning away Syrian refugees, and there are never ending calls for tighter border security, primarily the Mexican-American border. Apparently Mexicans seeking jobs and a better way of life pose a threat to us, while our Canadian neighbors do not.
Christopher Columbus, 1492: Illegal immigrant, undocumented alien.
Jamestown VA, 1607: Illegal immigrants, undocumented aliens.
Plymouth Rock MA, 1620: Illegal immigrants, undocumented aliens.
It seems that homeland security wasn’t so important to our European ancestors when they came to North America.
We are all immigrants, even those that we refer to as “Native Americans” who were here thousands of years before we were. Beginning in 1638, my family members, including our daughters-in-law, came to America from England, Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland, Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and China. One of my daughter-in-law’s grandmothers escaped to Iran at the time of the Russian occupation of her country of Georgia following the 1917 Soviet revolution. Her daughter, my daughter-in-law’s mother, then emigrated to America. From Georgia to Iran to America; three countries in just two generations! My family: immigrants from eleven different countries. My family: for 378 years a family of immigrants seeking freedom and economic opportunity!
Yet somehow, despite our immigrant status, we have acquired the idea that we are the only rightful owners of North America.
Manifest destiny, embraced as national policy in the 1800s, was the idea that Americans owe to the world an obligation to expand and preserve the spread of republican democracy: ”that great experiment of liberty.” As history shows, “that great experiment of liberty” was a rather incongruous idea at best!
In 1830 President Andrew Jackson gained Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act, authorizing the removal of Native American tribes to land west of the Mississippi River in exchange for forced cession of their lands in the Southeastern United States. The goal was to allow European-American planters to move in and develop the land for their plantations. The outcome of this action, known as the “Trail of Tears,” was the forced march westward of members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations. Enroute to designated “Indian Territory” and later Oklahoma, thousands became ill and died.
Today, due to our government’s numerous violations of treaties made with those who were here before us, bands of Native Americans must petition our governments to be recognized as an extant tribe. This status then allows them the right to request approval to operate casinos, which provide income to fund needed education, employment, health care, and social services to their tribal members. These casinos drain many millions of dollars from their patrons, those of us who arrived here long after Native Americans did. Righteous retribution, I suppose. But someday these casinos will be seen for what I believe they really are: yet one more example of our subjugation and degradation of those who occupied this land before we did.
Manifest Destiny rationalized the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845, resulting in the Mexican-American War.
Manifest Destiny even extended beyond our Pacific border. In 1893 the Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government composed of members of the American Committee of Safety. (I can’t help but wonder whose safety was in question.) The Queen was placed under house arrest in her palace in Honolulu. The monarchy was never reinstated, and in 1898 Congress passed the Newlands Resolution annexing the Republic of Hawaii to the United States, which subsequently became our 50th state. The absurdity of this strikes close to home in the Loomis family, as our son and his wife now live in Honolulu in the home in which her father of Chinese and Japanese ancestry grew up.
In the meantime, while we were subjugating those whose land we coveted, the United States engaged in the most schizophrenic of behaviors.
The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. Standing on Liberty Island, rising above the Upper New York Bay, she bears a torch and a tablet upon which is inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. The Statue of Liberty is an icon of freedom: a welcoming signal to immigrants arriving from abroad. A symbolic broken chain lies at her feet.
Inscribed at the base of the Statue are these words penned in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a woman of Jewish ancestry, who had written extensively of the persecution of Jews:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
“From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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-tossed to me,
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Next to Liberty Island sits Ellis Island which served as the famous immigration station from 1892 to 1954. During that time 12 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island. Eight million more were processed in the 35 years before Ellis Island was opened. We welcomed freedom seeking immigrants into our country as early as 1857, while simultaneously keeping as our slaves Africans that we had kidnapped from their countries. Today one-third of all Americans can trace their ancestry to those who arrived at Ellis Island, a lineage of immigrants of astonishing proportion.
“I am an immigrant.
I am a stranger in this place.
I have left everything I own.
To everything I’ve known I say goodbye.”
During the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1852 one million Irish men and women died, and one million emigrated from their homeland to the United States.
“I am an Irishman.
When the famine put us to the test
Away into the West,
Like wild birds flying,
“We put our backs to the wheel
With a heart that always yearned for home.
We have made this place our own.
And about died trying.”
Several groups of Amish and Mennonite people make their home in northern Indiana and in St. Joseph County MI, just south of where I live. They are direct descendents of Anabaptist Christians who were tortured and persecuted in Europe by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. Thousands fled to the United States to obtain religious freedom.
“She said, ‘Give me your tired,’
Don’t you know I’m weary?
She said, ‘Give me your poor,’
She’s talking to me,
One of your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free.
“And I never have lost sight of
What this journey has been for.
See how she lifts her lamp
Beside the golden door.”
The United States was the destination, and benefactor, of many other groups of immigrants. Of note in our area of southwest Michigan are the Hispanic migrant workers who harvest our abundant fruit and vegetable crops each year.
“I am a Chicano.
In your orchards and your fields
I have gathered in the yields
For this hungry land.
“I am Chinese.
I worked your mills, your yards, your mines.
I laid your railroad lines
With my two good hands.
“I am Nigerian,
I am Iranian, a Jew.
From Laos, from Katmandu.
“I am a long, long line,
One you have forgotten, that is true.
I am everything you knew.
I am your glory!”
Xenophobia ….there’s that word again.
Perhaps Native Americans should have experienced a bit more xenophobia
and exercised more “homeland security” when our ancestors came here,
We seem to have forgotten what our journeys have been for!
* Now we hide her lamp behind our golden door. *
– AMERICA –
– a nation of immigrants –
May we restore her beacon-hand from which glows world-wide welcome.
And may we always bear witness to the richness of our diverse cultural heritage, a heritage both historical, and yet to come.
Therein lies our glory!