The Nature of Emigration and the Morality of Immigration Reform

My wife and I are children of immigrants, just like almost everyone else who lives in America. While it is unlikely that any serious immigration legislation will pass this congress, we have a responsibility to discuss immigration as citizens. And empathy needs to be the cornerstone of any immigration discussion. Why in the world do people choose to leave their homes to come to America anyway? Understanding this so called choice is central to understanding America’s so called immigration problem. I look to my own family history and personal observations for the answer.

The first immigrant’s in our family came from Ireland. My wife Kelly’s great-great-grandfather Patrick Howard was born in Ireland in 1852 at the height of the Great Famine, also called the Irish Potato Famine. By the time of his birth, nearly 25% of Ireland’s population had either died or fled the country. It’s hard to imagine, but try scrolling your Facebook friend’s list and stopping at every fourth person. Then imagine them either dead or disappeared. It’s even harder to imagine any able bodied people sitting around mid-nineteenth century Ireland waiting to die – the only choice was to pack up and go somewhere that had more food and less pandemic disease. And so, my wife’s ancestors left Ireland along with one million of their compatriots, not for a better life, but for their only chance at life.

Forty years later in 1892, my great-grandfather Leonardo Demma was a twenty-year old man living in Calabria, Italy with a similar so-called choice to make. In those days, the newly unified country of Italy was feast in the North and famine in the South. The northern provinces of Lombardy, Piedmont, and Venice underwent a massive government funded revitalization, fueled by the deforestation of southern Italy. The resulting draught, famine, and disease ravaged Calabria, where peasants like my great-grandfather were systemically denied schooling, and eventually revolted against their government in civil war. Leonardo Demma left Italy alone in 1892 like my other ancestors, and like the twenty-five million other Italians in the greatest human migration in recorded history – The Italian Diaspora.

Here in Hartford, Conn., 34% of our city’s population claim Puerto Rican decent. Puerto Ricans entered the States en masse starting after World War Two, and continuing through the 1970s and 80s as the island was forcefully “industrialized.” Intense foreign competition caused crippling unemployment as the agricultural society of Puerto Rico painfully shifted to manufacturing. This drove tens of thousands from their homes to the Northeastern states like New York and Connecticut.

In the 1990s, while I was a boy living in Central New York, Yugoslavia fell apart and the Bosnian War forced thousands of immigrants into my home town. Today 10% of Utica, N.Y.’s population are Bosnian. The horrible irony is that many of these immigrants face discrimination from Italian-Americans even though their ancestors lived less than 500 miles from each other in Europe! The Bosnian-Americans are more refugees than immigrants, forced from their homes like millions who came to America before them, and yet they are looked at as second class people in a town that should know how to take care of displaced foreigners.

Today Mexicans make up the largest group of people migrating to the United States (as of 2010, followed by the Chinese and Indians). What’s going on in Mexico? Well, 90% of drugs entering the United States are controlled by the powerful Mexican drug cartels, who buy this power with an estimated 12,000 murders per year in Mexico. And it’s not just soldiers dying in Mexico. Imagine waking up to learn your local police chief or town councilman had been murdered, or a family you knew was found in a mass grave near the boarder Del Norte. This is Mexico today. What choice do these people have? What would you do with your family?

Why does a drowning man grab ahold of the first log within his grasp? Not because of choice, but because he must. People emigrate from their home countries out of necessity. It’s not a choice. Immigration is fulfillment of their fate. America is their shining city on the hill just like an island is for someone floating stranded at sea. There is no where else for them to go, and staying in their raft is not an option.

My great grandfather did not move to America for an easy life filled with wealth and luxury. He signed his name with an “X” in 1892, and left home on a spaceship bound for the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the terrifying. He worked the worst jobs that no one else wanted, like lugging bricks around for masons or shining shoes. He was met with racism and discrimination. He had to learn a complex foreign language even though he was illiterate. He was just like the Irish before him, and the Mexicans after him.

At least one of my great-grandparents and at least one of Kelly’s ancestors “came in through Canada.” This is a phrase that people are comfortable using today to describe their ancestors’ undocumented immigration that they enjoy the benefits of today. These same people who use this benign phrase call present day immigrants who enter the US just like their ancestors did different names. Here are the nicer ones: border-jumpers, illegals, aliens.

Illegal alien is just a made up phrase for people who are our brothers and sisters, who act just like we do – we act in our own best interest, we act to survive, and we are moved helplessly by the millions of forces around us. Would you kick your own brothers and sisters out of your home?

This famous portion of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which my great-grandfather would have seen over a hundred years ago, has stuck with me from the first time I read it…

“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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

America’s greatness is founded on the immigrant spirit – the spirit of those who had the strength to reestablish themselves in a foreign land. The inscription from the Statue reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, which also stuck with me from the first time I heard it…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I’m proud to be part of the greatest nation in the history of mankind, a nation that embraces the meek with open arms because we know that all men are created equal. Sure, we need safe and secure boarders, and all individuals in this country need to enrich their communities, not endanger them. We are a nation of laws AND we are a nation of immigrants. Congress must provide a firm but fair path to citzenship for undocumented citizens who work hard and do not commit crimes. And most importantly immigration reform needs to start with empathy and love.

Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Isl...
Statue of Liberty National Monument, Ellis Island and Liberty Island, Manhattan, in New York County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)