The golden door

Once when I was reporting on business for the Democrat and Chronicle, I telephoned an economist or statistician in some government bureau remote from Rochester, N.Y., to get information I needed for an article about whether average wages were keeping pace with the cost of living. (They weren’t.)

As I talked, I quickly realized the person I was interviewing was not a native speaker of English. She did not know the meaning of the idiom, “make ends meet.” I recall the impression that she was Japanese, but I don’t know whether this was because I knew her name or for some other reason.

After I got the information I needed, we started talking generally about the United States and its economic situation. She told me that “we” as a nation needed to get our act together, that “we” risked being overtaken by foreign competitors.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I realized the significance of that “we.”  Here was a woman who was born on the other side of the planet. Here was I whose ancestors have been American citizens since the United States come together as a nation. Yet we could talk to each other as “we” – members of a common community with a common loyalty.

I feel proud – or rather grateful – to be part of a culture and a community that has this power of attraction. It is like being a member of a club that everybody wants to join. It is possible because American national identity, unlike that of many other countries, does not rest on a common ancestry or a allegiance to a particular or party. Our patriotism is the willingness to uphold, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, which is our implementation of an ideal of democracy, freedom and liberty under law. The power of this ideal is why the United States can accept more legal immigrants than any other nation – some say more than the rest of the world combined – and still maintain our identity.

None of this proves anything one way or the other concerning current controversies over immigration, but I hope it would take the edge off the animosity that so many people seem to feel about current immigrants.

For many people in the world, the United States is like a life raft and they are like shipwreck survivors drowning on the ocean. Now there may be a limit to how many people we can take aboard our life raft without sinking ourselves, especially with our currently stagnant economy. But those of us who are already on the raft should not resent those struggling in the water.

I happen to know that several of my acquaintances are descended from illegal immigrants. One was a Jewish man living in Russia near the Polish border right after World War One.  He persuaded his childhood friend, living in Rochester, N.Y., to say that he was his brother, and, on that basis, was able to slip into the United States. His son had a distinguished career as an engineer, and his granddaughter became a successful journalist, whom I knew. She by now has grown children of her own.

Come to think of it, my Ebersole ancestors, who came to the United States from Germany in the 18th century, were undocumented immigrants (though not illegal). In those days, there were no barriers to immigration. One of the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that he discouraged immigration by “obstructing the Laws for the Naturalization of Foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their Migration hither …”


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