“We cannot really speak of a particular ‘immigrant contribution’ to America because all Americans have been immigrants or the descendants of immigrants … each wave of immigration left its own imprint on American society … Every ethnic minority, in seeking its own freedom, helped strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life.”
— John F. Kennedy
Written in 1958 at the behest of the Anti-Defamation League, President Kennedy’s “A Nation of Immigrants” traces the history of immigration to our great country. In it he clearly demonstrates how immigrants and their descendants play key roles in our country’s development. Yet more than five decades later, immigration reform remains one of the major issues of our time.
In the absence of meaningful reform at the federal level, some states have passed so-called immigration reform measures. Many of these laws can be characterized as legally questionable on constitutional grounds, but even more problematic on social and moral grounds.
We should recall that America’s beacon of freedom and opportunity attracts immigrants. My family story illustrates that point.
My maternal grandfather was born in the 1890s in Austria. Although anti-Semitism was part of the political and social fabric, his family lived a comfortable and mostly peaceful life. Despite the illusory calm, my great-grandfather decided that each of his children, upon reaching the age of majority, would immigrate to New York. My grandfather watched as each of his six older sisters left for the promise of America.
Upon my grandfather’s arrival in New York, he passed from one sister’s household to another, helping to support the family and leaving school at a young age to sell newspapers, push garment racks through the streets and do other assorted work. At 20, with little formal education, he was lucky enough to get a job with a prominent New York–based department store. He proved to be a fantastic salesman and was able to liquidate an entire unsold inventory in short order.
One thing led to another and soon my grandfather started his own manufacturing company, focusing on women’s coats. Success enabled him to relocate his young family, including my newly born mother, from an apartment in Brooklyn to a nice house in suburban Westchester County. It was a short train ride away from his offices, showroom and manufacturing facility in New York’s burgeoning garment district.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression took this young business as a victim. But because our culture values entrepreneurship, risk-taking and innovation, my grandfather was able to borrow money to restart his business. He then replicated his success, this time on a lasting basis.
America afforded my grandfather a haven and the prospect not once, but twice, to build a successful business. He was able to give his children opportunities they would not have enjoyed had they been born and raised in Austria in the 1920s and ’30s — first and foremost the chance to live in safety, free from the violence that enveloped Europe. He also made sure his children received the finest education America could offer.
As a second-generation, American-born descendant of an immigrant, I fully appreciate how lucky I am that my great-grandfather made that fateful decision to send his children to America — and moreover, that America was willing to accept them.
In my business, I employ immigrants from all parts of the world, including Mexico, Central America, Asia and Russia. Without exception, each of these people came to America seeking the same things my grandfather and his sisters sought: freedom, a better life for themselves and their families, and an education for their children. Every one of them is hardworking; some work two or three jobs. But they do not complain, because they understand the promise America holds for their children.
We must urge our leaders to work toward a federal solution that is just and compassionate, and that promotes the principles of freedom and opportunity on which this country was built. We owe it to our country, to ourselves, and to those who wish to come here.
Let us open our gates in a humane and sensible way, consistent with our history and our national ideals. We ought to resist the bigotry and prejudice that some express toward immigrants. Let us find a way to transition immigrants already in the United States to legal residency status, creating a fair and reasonable process toward citizenship.
Eric D. Horodas is the outgoing regional board chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region. For information, visit www.adl.org/immigrants.