Commentary: Immigrant Stories Cut Through Rhetoric

(This post is from my commentary aired by WFAEClick here to listen to it.)

The immigration debate is reaching a crescendo of polarities. There are so many facets of the issue, it’s difficult for me to take sides.  Having worked previously for a refugee resettlement agency, I’m familiar with the plight of legal immigrants. However, my personal contact with illegal immigrants has been invisible to me, just as many of them are in our society.

With the exception of the Native Americans, we’re all immigrants – some legally, some illegally. And most of us don’t have to go too far back in our family tree to find those brave souls who made the harrowing journey to the States in search of social, economic and religious freedom.   Whether that person was a distant relative who came over on the Mayflower or a parent, they somehow marshaled the gumption and resources to make the universal quest to provide better lives for their children. I only have to go back as far as my grandparents to be connected to the immigrant experience.

My maternal grandmother, Sally was born in the US, but her older sister was born in Russia.  We don’t know much about the trip my great-grandparents made in the early 1900s from Russia to America, but we do know they arrived in the northeastern US, settling in the Boston area not far from my paternal grandparents.

Maternal Great Aunt Elizabeth Sparks (immigrant from Russia) & Samuel Meyers on their wedding day in 1916 in the US

My paternal grandmother and great uncle were born in Slavuta,Ukraine in the early 1900s. They arrived in 1911 with their parents.  My grandmother was 7, her older brother was 10.  Of course, growing up, I didn’t know any of this.  To me, my grandmother was, well, a grandmother.  But she was an immigrant and like many before and after her, she managed to learn a new language, navigate the intricacies of a new lifestyle, and assimilate into a new culture. Eventually she married, working all her adult life while raising two sons. These boys graduated from college, served in the US military, earned graduate degrees and became successful engineers.

While nothing short of amazing, these stories are not unique and are repeated every day. In fact, whether you, your parents or your great-great parents were the ones to make the trek here, it’s clear that the determination for a better life often trumps law, logic and, in some cases, common sense.  When we learn the individual stories of tenacity and triumph over troubles and red-tape, all of the rhetoric melts away.  In its wake, is left the harsh reality that being an immigrant is not an easy path, regardless of legal status.

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