Jul 4, 2015

Immigration & America; July 4, 2015

This week's foray by The Donald into the immigration debate made me step back and think "what makes someone an American?" Is it an accident of birth? Having a special skill? Or is it an attitude?

Immigration didn't use to be a political issue; short of leprosy or lunacy, basically everyone was accepted. In the 19th Century's human waves of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were my grandparents, who came to the New World for a chance for a better life.

My maternal grandmother was Mary Inez Ryan, a Roman Catholic from Ireland's County Limerick, and we grew up listening to her stories of leprechauns and banshees. She married Joseph Mendell, whose German-Jewish father changed their name from Mendel upon arrival here. My dad's parents were also immigrants, Louis Ljubon from Budapest married Bavaria's Aloysia Woelfl. Both families settled in northern New Jersey, struggled through the Depression, and like so many others after Pearl Harbor, both my mom and dad enlisted in the Marines. Afterwards they were part of the first G.I. Bill class at Montclair State Teachers College and worked hard to give us kids a better life and more opportunities. That makes me a 3rd generation American; the proud grandson of immigrants.

With so many decades of immigrants come so many immigration stories... on one of my Afghan embeds I met Maj Tuan Pham, USMC, a Vietnamese refugee whose grandfather and father were killed by the Viet Cong. His mother and sister fled Vietnam as 'boat people,' and eventually got Pham out...he's a hard-charger who understands the values of sacrifice and hard work. While his family story is certainly  more interesting than mine, it's similar in that it started with folks looking for a better life, making their way to America, working hard, giving back, and helping build that which we call "The American Dream".

Since 9/11 there have been some 60,000 immigrants who became Americans through their service in the Armed Forces. The ranks of the Marine Corps, for example, are filled with young men and women with fascinating accents who are "giving back" to their newly adopted country. Some of them "give back" a lot; Trump would be horrified to learn that Mexican-born Marine Sgt Rafael Peralta's last act was to roll onto a grenade in Fallujah, sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of the Marines behind him. Then there's Sgt Michael Strank, one of the five Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. He was born Mychal Strenk, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, and learned English in a tough Pennsylvania steel town.

His fellow flag-raisers included Rene Gagnon, the son of French-Canadians who were working in a New Hampshire textile mill, and Ira Hayes; a Pima Indian born in Arizona. One wonders of Hayes's thoughts on immigration; probably not much; he considered his fellow Marines to be his adopted family.

Strank was killed on Iwo, three days after that famous photograph was taken; Peralta died in Fallujah . Other countries should have immigrants like these two.

They're the strength of this country, this blend of steel workers, farmers, and shopkeepers who arrived here with little more than an ill-fitting suit and a fierce determination to "do better." They helped build America by learning the language, working hard, and in believing America to be a 'melting pot' and not a 'mosaic;' they blended together and gave this country a mind-set that equated hard work with success.

Unlike the faux-patriotism espoused by those who are only seeking publicity; Strenk and Peralta understood that patriotism was something that was to be practiced as opposed to harangued. On the morning after Pearl Harbor, college boys were racing farm boys to enlist, and by 1945 America had 12 million men and women under arms. Everyone volunteered; my ex-wife's father forged his father's name to the paperwork and joined the Army underage -- he grew up quickly as he first fought in Italy and later in the Battle of the Bulge. Young Americans like Peralta did the same, enlisting – like many- after 9/11.

That's real patriotism. Everyone pulled together for the common goal of protecting the American way of life that their parents and grandparents worked to offer them.

That's what makes today's immigration debate so frustrating. Most of the illegals quietly work hard, taking the dirty jobs that most American citizens refuse. Sure many of them arrive not speaking English, but neither did my Grandfather Ljubon or Mychal Strenk. America is still a country of opportunities for those who want to work, and given the opportunity, look at how Sgt's Strenk and Peralta have become a part of American history.

Maybe being an "American" is an attitude rather than an accident of birth. Since people today aren't digging the Erie Canal or building the transcontinental railroad; today's settlers are instead working in an Iowa meat-packing plant or cutting lawns in Bucks County, PA. Hard work never hurt anyone Grandpa Ljubon used to tell me; and as Grandpa's Strenk, Peralta, and Pham surely told their boys; with hard work you can accomplish almost anything.

So raise a glass to our 239th birthday -- with more hard work and immigrants like these, we'll be celebrating 239 more.

Happy Independence Day.

1 comment:

Celtic Warrior said...

What a wonderful post! My dad's side arrived in the Colonies in the late 1600s in the region now known at the Chesapeake. My mother's side is Welsh/Scottish. Dad's, Scot/Scots-Irish. Andrew's comment is timely today, as I am watching a TV special about the Vikings who arrived in Scotland (Scotia) roughly 1200 years ago. The entire side of my dad's ancestry are redheads in one degree or another, indicating a distant Viking ancestry.

As to immigrants, I am fully disgusted by the vulgar and abusive comments made about immigrants by presidential wannabes. Rubio: First generation Cuban American. Cruz: Cuban born in Canada. We are seeing the deeper underbelly rising to the top in our nation as pols pit one group against another group. How grievous is that! The only "original" Americans are the Natives, and we know what white man has done to them.