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On the holiday of the first illegal immigrants who among us doesn’t have an émigré bloodline?
By Jim Kempton
In the current American conversation the topic of Immigration has become almost ubiquitous.
From morning news to late night talk shows, the future of more than 11 million undocumented residents is being heatedly debated. So as we celebrate a holiday honoring America’s first illegal immigrants there is much to reflect about the historic lineage of people arriving on the American doorstep.
The Pilgrims’ new world arrival was an uninvited ingress into the great Wampanoag Confederacy. The natives however, were quite accommodating to the struggling band of refugees. They had fled Britain’s wrath for their heretical religious beliefs, and been dispatched with an exit visa from Holland as well. Not only did the wampum-laden native Americans stamp the Pilgrims’ work permits, they allowed them to apply for permanent residency—as long as they took care of their own social services.
Not even a year into their tourist permit, however, the starving Plymouth Rock roundheads were on the dole, begging food-stamps from the Indians while begrudgingly getting a public education in how to plant and harvest new world crops necessary for survival. They still spoke not a word of the country’s language, but relied entirely on an interpreter—Squanto.
The natives had good reason to offer the Pilgrims new world cuisine. Think of it—our recent immigrants gave us pizza, hotdogs, sushi, orange chicken, spring rolls, tacos, burritos and pork rib barbeque. The Indians got English food.
England was experiencing a wave of corruption not dissimilar to Mexico today. Religious violence not withstanding, there were major drug cartels like the East India Trading Company shipping millions of pounds of opium with the tacit support of British government officials.
It wasn’t long before these Englishmen forged a new nation of 13 colonies. Then the Irish came, speaking mostly Gaelic, building our canals and railroads. Next came the Germans, moving to the Midwest building the factories and breweries of Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago. For two generations most only spoke German.
And so it continued: Cantonese-speaking Chinese building the Trans-continental Railroad; Yiddish- speaking Jews building the garment and film industry; Sicilians of Little Italy coming as shoemakers, tailors and restaurateurs; the pre-world War II Nisei-speaking Japanese bringing sophisticated irrigation and agricultural methods. Of course no history would be complete without acknowledging the African American slaves, immigrants of compulsory status, who built the entire southern plantation industry and great swaths of the industrial heartland from Pittsburg to Chicago. In my generation the Saigon refugees from Vietnam, and now the Hispanic wave undergirding our massive Agribusiness. Each group was initially met with scorn and prejudice.
Albert Einstein, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Henry Kissinger, Neil Young and Mikhail Baryshnikov all slipped into this country initially undocumented—either as refugees, asylum seekers or collaborators in science, music or sport. They, like all the other immigrants, made this nation great.
The current wave of Hispanic immigrants includes millions of illegal residents. But if Congress’ ‘temporary work recess’ ever ends, and they actually legislate reforms, our newest immigrants will be in good company.
Jim Kempton loves America, and all its amazing immigrants. His biggest query is why no one has ever asked Superman for his work permit.