OP-ED: We are all (mostly) immigrants
Almost two weeks ago, President Trump issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees and Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States. Holders of American green cards from these countries — people working in the U.S., paying taxes, often married to citizens, and on their road to citizenship — were detained at airports on returning from visiting dying parents or conducting business for American companies. Widespread protests erupted at airports, and wrenching fears settled on homes, schools, and universities. Since then there have been a flurry of lawsuits and legal actions. As I write, the Trump vs. the courts drama continues.
Trump's anti-immigrant stance has emboldened hateful confrontations. My cousin, Martha Markusen, was driving home through New Mexico last month. At a truck stop, the white man in front of her said loudly to the African-American woman serving him behind the counter: "Why don't you go back to where you came from!" Martha gasped out loud "What??!!!" I wondered if I would have been able to engage him in a conversation. Like "Let's figure out whose ancestors came here first. Have you considered how many generations ago her ancestors arrived?"
The continued rancor over this order has me thinking about my own immigrant history. My ancestors came from Europe: England, Ireland, Germany, Denmark. My Danish great-grandfather Hans came in the 1880s. The Germans had invaded Schleswig during his childhood, appropriating his family's farm and driving ethnic Danes north into the Jutland peninsula where no farmland was available. Han's new livelihood — master cabinetmaker — was destroyed by the dawn of manufactured furniture just as he finished his journeyman training. He accepted an offer of passage to Minnesota on a steamship, subsidized by the labor-hungry railroad. He managed to make enough money to return home for his wife and small children, but never again managed a vacation visit.
Flight from conflict, unemployment, and poverty played roles in forebears' flight to America. My German grandfather's family was displaced by French/German conflict over Alsace-Lorraine. My Irish grandmother's family fled the potato famine and the religious and cultural oppression of English occupiers. My husband's Finnish grandparents fled from Russian imperialism and displacement from agriculture due to primogeniture (only the eldest son inherited the farm).
Our families faced indignities. Finns, in particular, were reviled and feared in northern Minnesota. Many were housed in separate neighborhoods in mining towns. Many, even in my husband's generation, were humiliated in our grade schools by their Anglo-American teachers and disciplined harshly for speaking Finnish.
Not all Americans are descended from "immigrants." Native Americans were here first. African Americans came as slaves. Both these groups suffered terribly over centuries as Americans of European descent appropriated Native lands at gunpoint and with legal subterfuge, and enslaved and sold African-Americans who had no rights to what they produced or their own labor and personhood. Slaveowners could and did sell wives, husbands and children far away from their families. We are still struggling to overcome the injustices bred by these practices. But we are making progress, as the achievements of our Fond du Lac friends and neighbors demonstrate with their community college, schools, health care, social services, and law enforcement.
The American economy grows and thrives on immigrants seeking work and freedom from terror, war and poverty. They often fill the worst jobs, learn English, buy a home or small farm, and enrich our cuisine and cultures. Many come — just as our European ancestors did — as "birds of passage," to make enough here to return home to start a small business or fruit and vegetable operation. Some come for college or as exchange students, often staying to contribute to our high tech and research sectors. Both the U.S. and Canadian economies have expanded from immigration over the past few decades, avoiding the stasis and aging of populations that has held Europe back.
We are a land of immigrants, and we have the potential to be a nation of tolerance. Yes, we face problems with violence and terror, committed by white American men as well as others. We need better security, best done with community policing. Better ways of dealing with mental illness. Neighborhoods that are more diverse and sociable and where people work together to celebrate and support each other and welcome newcomers from other cultures. We need better gun sales monitoring and licensing, something the National Rifle Association in its early days vigorously supported.
Protests of the new Trump immigration orders are welcome. But we can do more. Let's welcome newcomers to our communities, as many are doing through their churches, synagogues and mosques all over the country. Learn about their cultures and their struggles, their aspirations. We've done it, albeit imperfectly, for centuries. Let's continue to be a place where the Statue of Liberty, with her muscular torch, welcomes people without prejudice, reaching out over Emma Lazarus' inscription "Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."