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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Immigration and Community


Like all Americans, I am a product of immigration across four centuries.  My paternal grandmother emigrated here from Sweden early in the 20th century.  My maternal grandfather’s grandparents were German Catholics who came here in the mid-19th century and helped found the local Catholic church.  My maternal grandmother’s great grandparents were Scots-Irish Presbyterians who arrived in the late 18th century.  My father’s paternal line dates back to a German Quaker who came to Pennsylvania in the late 17th century to help found Germantown.  In short, I am an average American, with links to different cultures, different religions, different reasons why my ancestors became Americans.
            So, I get upset when I hear the rants of Donald Trump.  No, Mr. Trump, Latin American immigrants coming in from Mexico are not mostly rapists.  No, Donald, Syrian refugees who have fled an awful civil war are not all devotees of ISIS.  No, America has not lost its greatness because we have elected, twice, our first African-American President.  In fact, we have not lost our greatness; we have just entrusted it too much to corporate greed and, in the process, lost our sense of balance.
            Yes, there are many Americans for whom social change—the new mix of cultures in America, the new international economy of which we are an important part, the shift of jobs in a post-Industrial economy—has tarnished their own cultural identity, their sense of themselves and their role in society.  It has happened before, when the Irish came and challenged the position of earlier English and German settlers and, later, when the Italians came over and challenged the Irish to working class jobs.  It is, I guess, a natural part of the process by which we become Americans that, after a couple of generations, the children of immigrants no longer see themselves as foreigners and instead look down on the newest immigrants as strangers threatening their jobs and way of life.  This, too, passes, as their children accept the children of their new neighbors as friends, lovers, spouses, co-workers, sports heroes, citizens, .
            The immigration experience is what we all have in common. While Americans cherish individuality, it is our common experience that binds us together as Americans.  It is what drives our particular brand of democracy.  Our democracy uses government to empower neighborliness amid diversity.  It is how we invest in our communities to help each other find and maintain a quality of life and to ensure that, in a democracy, all of us are positioned to help each other succeed.  That is why we pay taxes to support education at all levels.  It is why we are concerned that everyone have access to adequate health care, to a secure retirement, and, to safety in our homes and out in the streets of our community.  We invest our tax dollars to protect each other, not arming against each other, but by investing in neighborly support for our shared security.
            However, today’s challenge is greater because it is global. People feel disenfranchised here at home and fear that the United States leadership role is being challenged around the world.  It is what opens the door to politicians using xenophobia to build a sense of dread and doom in the electorate.  And that is a shameful thing for a politician to do.  True, we have much to do to recover our sense of shared community.  However, this is not a time for xenophobia.  It is not a time to pit us against each other.  Instead, it is a time to embrace our continuously expanding common heritage and to embrace the opportunity to refresh the sense of community that drives our unique, if often disorderly American democracy.