President Obama’s recent announcement giving the children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to work and the reaction of the GOP made me step back and think “what makes someone an American?” Is it an accident of birth? Having a special skill? Or is it an attitude?
Immigration didn’t use to be a political issue; people were accepted or denied on their merits. In those human waves of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were my grandparents, who came to the New World for a chance for a better life.
My maternal grandmother was Mary Inez Ryan, from Ireland’s County Limerick, and we grew up listening to her stories of leprechauns and wailing banshees. She married Joseph Mendell, whose German father had changed their name from Mendel upon arrival here. My dad’s parents were also immigrants, with Louis Ljubon from Budapest marrying Bavaria’s Aloysia Woelfl. Both families settled in northern New Jersey, struggled through the Depression, and then both my mom and dad enlisted in the Marines in WW2. Afterwards they were part of the first G.I. Bill class at Montclair State Teachers College and worked hard to give us kids a better life and more opportunities.
With so many immigrants come so many immigration stories…a few years ago in Afghanistan I met Tuan Pham, a Vietnamese refugee whose grandfather and father were killed by the Viet Cong. His mother and sister fled Vietnam as ‘boat people,’ and eventually got Pham out…now he’s Major Tuan Pham, USMC. While his is certainly a far more interesting family story than mine, it’s similar in that it started with folks looking for a better life, making their way to America, working hard, giving back, and helping build that which we call “The American Dream”.
Since 9/11 there have been some 55,000 immigrants who became Americans through their service in the Armed Forces. The ranks of the Marine Corps, for example, are filled with young men and women with fascinating accents who are “giving back” to their newly adopted country. Some of them “give back” a lot; Mexican-born Marine Sgt Rafael Peralta’s last act was to roll onto a grenade in Fallujah, sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of the Marines behind him. Then there’s Sgt Michael Strank, one of the five Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. He was born Mychal Strenk, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, and learned English in a tough Pennsylvania steel town. Strank was killed on Iwo, three days after that famous photograph was taken. Other countries should have immigrants like these two.
They’re the strength of this country, this blend of steel workers, farmers, and shopkeepers who arrived here with little more than an ill-fitting suit and a fierce determination to “do better.” They helped build America by learning the language, working hard, and in believing America to be a ‘melting pot’ and not a ‘mosaic,’ blended together and gave this country a mind-set that equated hard work with success.
And unlike the faux-patriotism espoused by those radio-ptariots who never served; they understood that patriotism was something that was to be practiced as opposed to harangued from the airwaves. On the morning after Pearl Harbor, both college boys and farm boys raced to enlist, and by 1945 America had 12 million men under arms.
Everyone volunteered; my ex-wife’s father forged his father’s name to the paperwork and joined the Army underage – he grew up quickly as he first fought in Italy and later in the Battle of the Bulge.
That’s real patriotism. Everyone pulled together for the common goal of protecting the American way of life that their parents and grandparents worked to offer them.
That’s what makes today’s immigration debate so frustrating. Most of the illegals quietly work hard, taking the dirty jobs that most American citizens refuse. Sure many of them arrive not speaking English, but neither did my Grandfather Ljubon or Mychal Strenk when they arrived. America is still a country of opportunities for those who want to work, and given the opportunity, look at how Sgt’s Strenk and Peralta have become a part of American history.
Maybe being an “American” is an attitude rather than an accident of birth. Since people today aren’t digging the Erie Canal or building the transcontinental railroad; today’s settlers are instead working in an Iowa meat-packing plant or cutting lawns in Bucks County, PA. Hard work never hurt anyone Grandpa Ljubon used to tell me; and as Grandpa’s Strenk, Peralta, and Pham surely told their boys; with hard work you can accomplish almost anything.
So raise a glass to our 236th birthday – with more hard work and immigrants like these, we’ll be celebrating 236 more.
Happy Independence Day.