Immigration has always been a convenient hot-button issue to rile up voters of all stripes. The subject makes for easy rallying cries and attack ads – often stereotypical and misleading – from both the right and left.
But the hard truth is that, over the last several decades, neither major American political party has shown genuine interest in taking a serious stab at honest, practical conversations with the other side to achieve a bipartisan solution.
Instead, far too many politicians at both extremes relish the chance to use immigration mainly for their own political advantage. After all, compromise would mean backing off their radical stances for the good of the country, and that approach to governing is practically non-existent these days.
Yet as damaging to the nation’s long-term fortunes as those politicians are by putting partisan politics ahead of the country, they’re unfortunately just following the pitiful examples of those who came before them: Historically, immigrants have been used as political pawns.
The handling of Chinese immigration is one such example. As the father of two girls adopted from China, I made it a point years ago to learn about U.S. efforts to ban Chinese immigrants. Here’s a brief history, according to Wikipedia:
The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from migrating to the United States and was followed in 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years.
The Chinese Exclusion Act lasted more than 10 years. Then the Geary Act of 1892 strengthened and renewed it. It was made permanent in 1902.
Chinese immigrants were barred from the United States until 1943, when the Magnuson Act repealed the exclusion act and allowed 105 Chinese immigrants to enter annually.
Chinese immigration increased with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which abolished direct racial barriers for immigrants, and then the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the National Origins Formula.
But immigrants from China weren’t the only ones targeted. Some of the most egregious examples of immigrants being denied admission to the United States took place before and during World War II, when the U.S. government turned back ships carrying thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s horrors.
The list could go on, but with Thanksgiving looming – a day that’s supposed to celebrate the promise that this country holds for immigrants, despite the hatred and venom being directed toward them – I’d like to share two immigrant success stories.
Helping a new citizen
The first story involves my wife, Lynne Cains, a volunteer tutor with The Literacy Center, in Attleboro, where she works with people who need help in either learning English or being more comfortable reading, writing and speaking it. The center also offers classes to earn a high school equivalency degree (formerly known as a GED and now called HiSET), job and career resources, financial advice and computer literacy.
It also assists immigrants trying to become U.S. citizens, and my wife recently spent several months helping a woman study for the citizenship test. That particular experience was a new endeavor for Lynne, but she was undaunted. She helped the woman, an Egyptian immigrant, prepare for the test and improve her English.
I’m very proud of my wife’s hard work, which culminated in her student passing the citizenship interview on her first try; she’ll be officially sworn in as a citizen in the future.
A father’s advice
The other story you might remember, as I wrote about it here three Novembers ago, when I related how my daughter Arianna, who had been adopted in China in 1997, became a naturalized American citizen at age 3, in September 1999.
Shortly after Arianna became a citizen, to mark her first Thanksgiving as an American, I wrote a column, in the form of a letter to her, in The Sun Chronicle, of Attleboro, where I worked until retiring in 2017.
I’m sharing excerpts of that column here in an attempt to get the immigrant conversation back to the contributions that newcomers make. The words are as relevant now as they were 23 years ago.
“We were proud of you when you became a citizen. Why? Because despite all the complaining that grown-ups like to do about this country, the United States is still unequivocally the best place in the world to live.
“This country allowed Mommy and Daddy’s parents, their parents and their parents’ parents to worship as they believed and to raise their families with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and hard work – and it continues to allow immigrants from across the world to put down roots and build new lives.
“Citizenship carries with it many duties and responsibilities, including voting. Not enough people bother to vote, but perhaps you and your friends will become community-minded citizens. Being a good citizen is not hard, but it starts with being a good person, following the Ten Commandments – a universal code of good conduct – and helping those who are less fortunate.
“That’s why we celebrate Thanksgiving each year: the Native Americans who were in Plymouth in 1620 and 1621 helped the Pilgrims survive the harsh winter. You’ll learn more about Thanksgiving in the future, and one day we’ll visit Plymouth and its famous rock.
“But for now, remember that you have become a citizen of a fine country, one that must continue to accept immigrants because, as Thanksgiving reminds us, everyone’s ancestors who weren’t Native Americans came to the United States to flee persecution and enjoy the unique freedoms that this country offers.
“Now, Arianna, you’re an American, and you, too, can enjoy that freedom. As you grow up, I pray that you will use it wisely.”
LARRY KESSLER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at https://larrytheklineup.blogspot.com.