I have an excuse for not writing a Labor Day Blog last week. I had a draft all written and then CNN ran a wonderful editorial with a very similar thesis. The gist was that without immigrants–many of whom are denied citizenship, pay taxes, and perform a vast number of jobs–this country couldn’t function. They build our skyscrapers, mow our lawns, take care of our children and parents, bus tables at our restaurants, drive our taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers, serve us at fast-food restaurants, and so much more. So, I’ll try a variation on my original theme.
All four of my grandparents were immigrants. My dad’s parents came over as children from Lithuania, and my mom’s were from Romania. They were poor and didn’t speak English. My maternal grandpa crossed the Atlantic in a ship in steerage (below the deck) with just a few bucks in his pocket. He worked as a delivery boy and went on to found a thriving company. Why did they choose America? To escape pogroms aimed at Jews, for freedom of religion, and for economic opportunity.
Sound familiar? These are precisely the reasons immigrants from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa seek refuge and, ultimately, citizenship in the United States.
Yes, my relatives came here legally, but the path to citizenship was easier at the turn of the 20th Century. You basically just needed to be healthy to be admitted. But that changed in the 1920s when anti-immigrant sentiments ran high. If my grandparents hadn’t emigrated, they likely would have been murdered by the Nazis–and I wouldn’t be here. That’s true for millions of Americans today.
Today’s immigrants have many more barriers thrown in their path. And why should they? They want what my family came for: economic and educational opportunity and to work hard while raising families without the constant fear of violence and poverty. To be sure, we need a sound immigration policy–that means screening those seeking to immigrate for criminal backgrounds or health concerns. But banning all but a trickle of certain “favored” immigrants is crazy and hurts both our economy and social fabric.
Whenever I hear virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House or elected officials, I want to ask, “didn’t your family immigrate here? Weren’t they seeking the very same things today’s immigrants want?” The answer, of course, is “yes.” That’s why proclamations like “build the wall” and “ban Muslims” are so offensive, unfair, and not at all in keeping with the famous words of Lady Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, your wretched masses yearning to breathe free.” These are the words that should be the theme for celebrating Labor Day.