“They’re from away,” was a description in common use when we first moved to Vermont in 1969. It has been defined as referring to a person born beyond 10 miles of any particular location.
Probably there was a lot more to that definition in the “old days,” such as intricate family relationships and land deals good and bad, but for now, the 10-mile limit stands. I had been thinking about this phrase for some time and lo and behold, it appeared in a New York Times article a few days ago, about Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, looking for re-election support in her home state. This was a clear sign that I was on the right topic track.
What I really believe is that this phrase, when used today, is a kinder, gentler way of saying, “immigrant.” That word, “immigrant,” has recently become so debased and abused and its connotation made so negative, that few relish using it to describe themselves. The irony is that in the U.S., most of us are immigrants. Not necessarily in this generation, but in historical terms, unless a person is a member of an indigenous tribe they are of immigrant stock. This includes our current president who has proudly stated that his mother was Scottish, from the islands of the Outer Hebrides, and his grandfather was a poor German immigrant from Bavaria. Interestingly, Donald’s father, Fred, claimed to be of Swedish origin, a more neutral background in his time for doing business in New York City. Maybe that is where the Trump dissembling began.
Immigration has always been a complex and difficult issue in America. In the earliest times of the Spanish explorations by Christopher Columbus and Hernando De Soto to Florida and the Caribbean, settlement was not the issue. The conquistadors came from highly developed material cultures; gold and other riches and potential trade were the goals.
Along the way, much indigenous blood was spilled and the “immigrants” were disease organisms and non-native species of insects, plants, and sometimes domestic animals such as pigs and poultry. Some of these ecological immigrants settled amicably but others devastated native populations. The early attempted settlements of Roanoke and Jamestown carried on that same environmental invasion with drastic results both for themselves and future immigrants.
Today we are seeing and hearing about offensive and inhumane treatment of people from Mexico and the Central American states and others from Africa who have joined the caravans of migrants heading north trying to cross our southern border. This brings to mind the not so gentle treatment of poor immigrants from Europe who came to this country through Ellis Island (1892-1954) in New York Harbor. These included those escaping poverty in Ireland, the revolution in Russia, political troubles in Spain and Italy.
Though Ellis Island was called by many the ”Island of Hope,” it was no easy place to enter this country. Most of those who were transferred from ocean ships to Ellis Island were steerage passengers, the poorest travelers. Not all those who landed at Ellis Island were allowed to stay. Some were identified as criminals and immediately deported. Those who were physically sick were quarantined; others too weak to work or the mentally handicapped were sent back to Europe.
A visit today to the Ellis Island Museum shows holding cages, little chance for privacy and the great hall where thousands were crowded together to wait for processing. The inspectors who worked there were not multilingual or concerned about the gentle or polite treatment of Emma Lazarus’s “wretched refuse.” They changed many foreign names to simpler versions to make filling out forms easier – take it or leave it. Most immigrants were just happy to be able to stay and accepted rough treatment to do so, but that doesn’t excuse it then or now. Even in the early months of WWII, Jewish immigrants on a refugee ship, the St. Louis, were refused docking in U.S. ports.
What we are seeing today on our southern border is a continuation of our urge to reject immigrants.
But what are we losing by doing this?
Immigrants from many different countries have made major contributions to this country’s founding and success. According to Professor Patrick Young of Hofstra University, the Constitution was signed by 39 delegates on Sept. 17, 1787. Seven of them were born outside the colonies that became the United States. Three of the nine first Supreme Court Justices appointed by George Washington were foreign-born. Professor Young states, “When Americans say that this country was "built by immigrants," they rarely realize that, from the very beginnings, America’s system of government depended on those who came here from somewhere else.”
Other immigrants have enriched this country in science, mathematics, medicine, computer design, fashion design, the arts and architecture, sports and entertainment, politics and diplomacy. Every aspect of our country’s life has received great benefit from immigration. In fact without immigrant labor today, in 2019, a significant part of our rich and diverse agricultural system would not survive. We should be glad, proud and thankful that immigrants still want to come here and contribute to this country.