First Word: A Nation of Immigrants?
“Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.”
– John F. Kennedy
This past Thanksgiving, as I made my way to a home-cooked meal with friends, I couldn’t help but reflect on my first decade in America, when I had to work every holiday. I was so grateful for my waitressing job, being an undocumented alien. Some might say I lived “on the fringes,” but for me life was exciting, a rich tapestry. I had a dream of freedom, classlessness, and opportunity, and I was determined to make it come true. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” always struck me as odd, because here in New York is exactly where I wanted to be – and stay.
This holiday I have adopted – and the recent election – had me feeling bittersweet and hyper aware of the immigrants I encountered at each stop towards my final destination. At Welcome Wine & Liquor, as I picked up my favorite Californian pinot noir from the Russian River (the grapes picked by Mexican migrant workers), I chatted to the Indian owner about what we have in common – a history of British colonialism and national flags that have the same colors.
At Godiva Chocolates, one of the shop assistants was from Ghana, the other from the Dominican Republic. At the mention of the Dominican Republic my mind flashed back to a long-ago St. Patrick’s Day and my favorite chef, Roberto. Trying to maneuver in a jam-packed restaurant with a tray over my head, I “tenderly” kicked a firefighter in the leg. He yelped and got me in trouble. The owner’s son, Danny, called me a donkey and I fled to the kitchen in tears. Roberto, seeing my distress, left his burgers on the grill to pour me a glass of cooking wine. “It’s okay, Flaco,” he said gently. And it was.
I’m no longer the skinny girl who earned the nickname “Flaco” from my Spanish-speaking workmates, but my memories are vivid of the short order cooks, the busboys, the cleaners, the waiters (particularly Bruno from Brazil!), that I met over the 12 years it took me to get my papers. We were all from somewhere else, and that was our deep bond. We were all happy to be in America. No matter how hard the work and long the hours, we lived in hope.
The 1965 Immigration Act, which still holds firm today, just about closed the door on legal immigration from Ireland. Those of us who emigrated after that were a long way from that first rung on the ladder. It didn’t matter how far earlier generations had climbed, we were stuck in limbo. We couldn’t go home and we couldn’t move up. But we never gave up.
You see, the American dream is not so much a dream as a hope. The same hope that I had back then is burning in the thousands of undocumented Irish today whose path to citizenship is even more tenuous, more uncertain, given the unprecedented political stage. Those of us armed with papers, legal status, voting rights, must give a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves – the immigrants whose labors enrich our lives, who uprooted themselves and left their families for the chance to grow here and make a home – to become an American.
The cab driver who stopped and picked me up after my wonderful Thanksgiving dinner was from Senegal. We chatted about his name, Mor, which I told him in Irish means “big,” as in “big heart.” He laughed and said that he had a passenger earlier who told him that in Turkish, mor means “purple.”
In my vision of America, the rainbow has a purple hue. It’s the color you get when you mix red and blue.
Note: President John F. Kennedy believed passionately that what gave America its “flavor” and “character” was “the interaction of disparate cultures.” He wrote about this in an essay called “A Nation of Immigrants,” which was published as a book in the run-up to the 1960 election. It has recently been republished by the Anti-Defamation League.
For information on the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform visit: irishlobbyusa.org.