Reprinted with permission of the Delaware County Daily Times
By Joseph Batory, Times Guest Columnist
June 7, 2017
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(From The New Collosus by Emma Lazarus … also known as the Statue of Liberty poem)
In our democratic republic, bigots and narrow-minded elitists have always been part of the landscape. But these people have always betrayed the idealistic principles of our nation and they have also been morally wrong. Hatred and discriminatory practices have no place in America. Indeed, we are “a nation of immigrants.” With the exception of Native Americans, all of us are descended from people who in the last four centuries came to the USA from somewhere. Yet the evil of prejudice still persists in our “nation of immigrants” and its roots to the past are evident.
“Put them on boats and send them back to where they came from.” This was sadly the attitude of many Americans against the waves of Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. These poor and struggling Irish immigrants trying to escape from the famine and British oppression of Ireland were characterized as criminals and rapists. They were denied work. They were beaten and isolated in ghettos. Their churches were burned.
“Lazy and worthless, they are all violent assassins by nature, criminals and often terrorists.” These were the typical descriptions of Italian immigrants to the USA from 1890-1920. Discrimination against the Italian immigrants was commonplace and there were 50 different instances of “lynching” Italian immigrants across our nation.
“These yellow people are inferior with strange customs and practices and are not worthy to become Americans.” And so it was for Chinese immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century, brutally discriminated against and excluded from the mainstream for decades. In fact, the USA’s Chinese exclusion laws were not repealed until 1942.
And then there was me, the grandson of immigrants from Poland, who became the first family member to attend college. But I also was unable to get hired as a teacher. In one vivid instance, I remember being asked about my ethnic heritage when applying for my first teaching job in a Delaware County school district in the 1960’s. When I naively replied, “Polish,” I soon found out there was no way I would get this job. And so, my first teaching position of six was not in suburbia but in Camden, N.J. (a city of great diversity and poverty), the only school district that would consider me….and surprising I grew to love the experience.
And so it goes. Prejudice and narrow thinking have always been part of the American landscape. Fear of the newest immigrants and people of color and those with differing religious beliefs will always persist among some. But this thinking desecrates our values and ideals.
Finally, as for the illegal immigrant issue, the idea of people desperately seeking a new life is hardly something new to our nation. People have always come here in hope of a better future. And illegal immigrants are now part of that American reality. BUT…. dealing with this matter requires some complex strategy based on American ingenuity … and without tossing away our values. One size fits all or other simplistic solutions are not the answer to the illegal immigrant issue. And there are certainly better ways to deal with illegal immigrants rather than breaking up families and sending individuals back to violent war zones or to the political turmoil or the extreme poverty situations from which they came. America is better than that. And our Statue of Liberty has to be more than just a symbol.
During the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, job applications usually asked for “race” and sometimes ethnic origin. One of my African American friends during that era once gave me a wonderful piece of wisdom I will never forget; here’s what he said: “On the job applications where “race” is asked for, I just write “human,” because in the short time we have on this earth that is all any of us are, “human.”
These are meaningful words which all of us need to guide us these days.
Joseph Batory is the author of three books and has been widely published on politics and education.