A long time ago, my mother gave a speech to a national organization.
Her opening line was “I am an immigrant“.
As her son, it only seems right for me to borrow and modify that line today.
She came to this country in 1957 – a year after I was born to her and her American husband in the land of her birth, then known as West Germany. Once she and my grandmother (who came over with us) were settled into Philadelphia, my father left to complete his overseas duty obligations with the military. When he returned after that, we became the typical Hollywood immigrant family that most know from films and television: speaking German at home, and English to deal with the rest of the world. My original realization that most people here spoke only one language is still one that mystifies me.
My mother loved her new country with passion. Having spent her early years under National Socialism, she knew all too well the incredible freedoms enjoyed as a matter of course here. She was a big booster of the United States wherever she was, wherever she went. She did not take America for granted.
There were people that mistrusted her and disliked her simply because of her heritage and the history that heritage implied for them. People who shunned her, people who whispered behind her back. It did not stop her from holding her head high, for those people did not try to actually know her.
Today, I hear voices raised saying that people like my mother – immigrants – are the causes of the woes of this country. That they and their offspring do not belong here, and we should get rid of them by any means necessary. It’s easy to dismiss them as blowhards, as I certainly have in the past. The fact that they are now getting more and more of a serious hearing means something very sobering:
They are talking about people like my mother… and me. Both Americans, one by naturalization, one by birth because of an American parent while in Germany.
Their attitude is a ludicrous one. Next time you’re in the mall or at a sporting event, look around you. See all those people? It may not be as close relation as my own, but they are all descended from immigrants to this country. Their families did not spring fully formed from the soil of America. Instead, it was the United States that offered them the opportunity to thrive and flourish here, in some cases over generations welcomed to these shores as the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty states.
Think about it when someone says immigrants are dangerous, or untrustworthy, or anything else that reduces them to some sort of formless, shapeless, gray mass instead of human beings. Think about it when the words used are designed to turn immigrants and others into an “other” to be shunned, feared, and ultimately attacked and exterminated. Lest we forget it was that kind of rhetoric that helped contribute to the death of over 6 million people – people who were reduced to “other” status. The “other” that requires ethnic cleansing, just because they are different.
Think about that the next time you hear about someone who has been chanting “build that wall”.