I am the son of an immigrant. My dad’s parents left the Netherlands when he was a year old, and they spent the first 12 years of his life on a homestead in the middle of Canada before entering the United States and settling in Southern California.
My mom’s dad came to the United States, also from the Netherlands, with his parents when he was a boy. They put down roots in Paramount, at the time a rural enclave of dairy farms outside Los Angeles. And my mom’s maternal grandparents left the Netherlands as young adults to start their married life in the Central Valley town of Visalia.
Each of them left homes and families to seek a better life, something that I guess the United States and Canada had in spades over Europe in the dark days before and after World War II. They thought leaping into the unknown with only the promise of a place to stay while they got settled was better than what they had in the motherland, so they took the risk and sailed west.
They worked hard. They took jobs Americans wouldn’t do. They had children – and then grandchildren – who live the American Dream today because they sacrificed everything to make that happen.
If all this sounds eerily similar to the debate that currently engulfs the 24-hour news cycle, about Dreamers and DACA and undocumented immigration, it might be because what drove my grandparents and great-grandparents to leave their homes and families to come here is what drives anyone who immigrates: the promise of something better, and opportunities for their children they couldn’t have dreamed of for themselves.
I presume it’s what spurred a 16-year-old German named Friedrich Trump to come to the United States in 1885. He made millions running restaurants and boarding houses, a fortune he passed on to his son Fred. Fred amassed millions more in real estate before passing the torch to his son Donald.
Two generations removed from the old country and already a net worth of billions, not to mention the presidency. God bless America.
Of course, those in favor of border walls, rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants, and taking away work permits, college and protection from children who had no say in coming here, the only country they’ve ever known, would say Friedrich Trump and my family immigrated “the right way.” Meaning, I suppose, with permission and a plan.
My family had the permission required at the time. They had a place to stay and a sponsor who would vouch for them and could afford to keep them from becoming a drain on the system should something go terribly wrong.
They also had jobs lined up, which I imagine is more than 16-year-old Friedrich had. I don’t know what Friedrich’s immigration status was; his grandson never mentions him when ranting and tweeting about undocumented immigrants.
And let’s address the elephant in the room: Both my family and Friedrich emigrated from Europe. White, Protestant Europe. America’s doors have always been open to the tired, poor huddled masses of white, Protestant Europe. Less so for all others – unless there’s a transcontinental railroad to build, of course.
Or a transcontinental border wall, across thousands of miles of hot, desolate desert. Conditions, if we’re being honest, most Americans of white European descent refuse to work in. Just as they won’t, generally speaking, milk cows, pick crops, clean hotel and hospital rooms, mow lawns, do roofing, can fruit, wash dishes that aren’t their own, or dispense fast food.
Those jobs still get done, thankfully, often by the people a border wall is meant to keep out. This nation would grind to halt and starve to death if we didn’t have people willing to come here and pick up our rather substantial slack.
We owe them our cushy lives, and atonement for the years of vitriol we heap on them every time something bad happens in this country, or the economy tanks, or we’re in an election cycle. To blame someone for wanting a better life for themselves and their family – and doing something to achieve it – is as un-American as it gets, considering their dreams are the same dreams that brought this nation into being in the first place.
Giving their kids a life, an education, a future, a purpose and a path to citizenship seems the least we can do to make things even.
And I hope Friedrich would agree.