Vail Daily column: Just the same as us
Why would anyone ever want to leave this place? I have not been able to shake that thought since I visited Tuscany. The rolling hills were covered with vines and olive trees and the valley fields were aflame with red poppies in full bloom. I could picture myself residing happily in one of the ochre-colored houses, living on olives and drinking intemperate amounts of Chianti. I have wondered the same thing when I have visited other picturesque European locales where immigrants once departed in droves for new lives in America. Why would anyone ever want to leave?
The answer in many instances was they didn’t want to leave; they had to leave. Economic collapse, government dysfunction, religious oppression, war and hunger were powerful motivators for our ancestors to trade the familiar for the unknown and the promise that life in America might be better.
Some came to America with the hope of earning enough money to one day return and buy land of their own. My grandfather harbored the hope that he would return to Ireland. As a result, he waited 20 years before filing his naturalization paperwork. Some people went back, but most started families and stayed.
Because I am a genealogy nerd, I know how some of my ancestors came to reside in America. First was Obadiah Seeleye, a Puritan who left Birmingham, England, and settled in Connecticut, where he joined a community that shared his devout religious beliefs. That was nearly 400 years ago. More recently, my father’s parents arrived from Ireland in the early 20th century. My grandfather was from Dublin, one of 13 children. My grandmother was from Dungarvan, an orphan. Neither had much to stay for, even still, it had to be difficult to leave a place where you blend in — where they speak your language with the same accent, eat familiar food and worship at the same church. Even in dire circumstances it would have been tough to leave that behind for the unknown and to be the unwelcome.
What I know for sure is that none of my ancestors applied for a green card. None of them participated in an immigration lottery, nor applied for a visa or waited “their turn.” Unless your family arrived in the latter half of the 20th century, neither did they. Until recently, most immigrants scraped together enough money for passage on a boat and hoped for the best. The biggest hurdle my Irish grandparents faced was the physical exam at Ellis Island and acceptable responses to two important questions: Are you a polygamist? Are you an anarchist?
That does not mean it was easy for them. Despite the iconic visual symbol of the Statue of Liberty with the accompanying powerful words of Emma Lazarus, we say we want the world’s “wretched refuse” but complain when they actually show up. Chances are, few of us are descendants of European aristocracy. It was not the educated or elite disembarking at New York’s harbor. No, our collective ancestors were likely unskilled laborers. The few that did possess a skill were often tradesmen such as bricklayers, tailors, carpenters or farmers. They built railroads, sewed clothing and mined coal. They were desperate people in possession of a little bit more hope than fear.
Without fail, each successive wave of immigrants was discriminated against by the waves that came before them. In desperate times it was not only the new arrivals that experienced the humiliation of discrimination.
“Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas.” Californians describing new arrivals from Oklahoma in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.
The terms have changed but the intent to dehumanize outsiders remains. The term “illegals” is used to describe undocumented immigrants. A person can do something illegal, but they cannot be an illegal. “Anchor baby” is an offensive and stigmatizing term for an American child born to immigrant parents. Like it or not, our Constitution grants citizenship to people born on American soil.
This latest wave of immigrants is doing exactly what our ancestors did. Most of us would do the same in similar circumstances. They are trying to provide for their families. They are trying to get their children an education in a safe and healthy environment. Who could blame someone for wanting to leave a place such as Iguala, Mexico, where the mayor and his wife have been implicated in the murders of 43 protesting students? Who wouldn’t flee San Pedro Sula, Honduras, recently called the murder capital of the world, to get their kids some place safe?
We are the descendants of hardscrabble people who braved dangerous journeys to get to America. The people arriving now are cut of the same cloth. They are not different from us. They are us.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.