A New Year’s Reflection on Immigration

3 Jan
Arabs in America

Arabs in America

James Zogby recently wrote a reflection on his family’s immigration experience, and it is very similar to the story of how my paternal ancestors came to America.  Zogby’s Uncle Habib came to the United States at a young age, unaccompanied, from Lebanon, eventually paving the way for the rest of the family to make their way over from their small village, so that they could be free of Ottoman persecution. And so it went for my father’s grandparents. First one brother arrived in Pittsburgh (with thoughts of ketchup dancing in his head?), then the rest of the siblings came. This was in the 1880’s, over 100 years ago.

Zogby’s reflection is filled with a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices made by those who came before him, with nothing, to make a better life in America.  And yet he ends his essay on a sad note, telling the story of a recent meal with Congressional aides who openly berate their waiter, wonder about his legal status, and state that it would be “fun” to report him. It seems that we Americans have an alarming empathy gap when it comes to immigrants. How quickly we forget our forebears.

The December lame duck session of Congress produced many legislative achievements for the White House- the new START treaty, repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, healthcare for 9/11 first responders, passage of a food safety bill.  The only major legislative victory the President couldn’t claim was passage of the DREAM Act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors (in many cases, when they were infants). I found it remarkable that Congress could come together to pass several contentious bills, and yet when it came time to look at the human face of immigration, the votes were not there.

Many people who take the immigration debate seriously propose making it easier for highly-skilled immigrants to enter the country.  The implication is that a glut of low-skilled immigrants take the place of engineers and technical experts who are otherwise kept away. As if the two strata of immigrants can’t coexist.  What often underlies the highly-skilled immigration argument is the idea that we have no use for low-skilled immigrants. Immigrants of the same kind that preceded me, my father and James Zogby.  You see, this country is made up of the descendants of people who came to this country from every corner of the globe with no skills at all- just a desire to work. I get slightly offended when I hear talk of highly-skilled vs. low-skilled immigrants, as it feels like an affront to those who came before me, who didn’t arrive on these shores with an advanced degree in architecture.  Just a willingness to work hard so that future generations could live in comfort and be educated. And complain about the current crop of lazy immigrants. Ah, progress, American style.

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