My parents immigrated to the United States from Russia. My father arrived in 1923, my mother in 1921. He was 22 and she was 17. Neither spoke English. Dad was a shoemaker.
Dad left Russia with two friends to avoid being drafted into the czar’s army. My mother left with her mother and sister to escape from the progroms. A progrom is an organized massacre against an ethnic group. In this case they were carried out against Jews.
My nephew, David Allen, their grandson wrote the following about my mother in the Temple Shalom newsletter. “She made a four-year journey to America. She came for a better life for her and her children. However, she, as many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, left everything behind. They left family behind. They left friends behind. They left their homes behind. They left life as they knew it behind. All of this to come to America. To come to an unknown land. To come and learn a new language. To learn new customs. To make a new life. But really to come to the land of opportunity.”
After arriving in America, my parents met, married, had three children and lived through the Depression. Neither were well-educated. After the war, my father and three partners started a shoe factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the mid-1950s, they moved the business to Farmington, where they employed 400 people. Soon after, a second factory was opened in Livermore.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, millions of immigrants came to America. Many were not welcomed warmly. That mass immigration helped create our diverse society. We were a country accepting people from throughout the world. There was a tragic time in the late 1930s and early to mid 1940s where we closed our borders to an ethnic group — the European Jews. Many thousands who could have come to America were refused entry and died in Hitler’s gas chambers.
Immigrants and the generations they created were the source of labor and creative thinkers who molded their adoptive country into an industrial and economic behemoth. They all came here with dreams and aspirations of making better lives for themselves and their families. Many of the first generation spoke little English, had few skills and did not mingle with those outside of their ethnic background.
The members of the second generation learned English, became educated, followed into businesses their parents began or started their own. They assimilated into “American” society.
We now have calls for allowing only immigrants who speak English. They are asked to leave their culture and heritage at our door. They must have skills. Many believe all who are Muslim are evil and a threat because of a warped sense of their religion by a few.
We approve of sending missiles to retaliate Assad’s use of chemical weapons, but we refuse to take in those who flee his country for fear of being killed.
From everything I have read, there are no cases of terrorist acts in this country by immigrants from Muslim countries. Before people are admitted to America they must go through a minimum 18- to 24-month vetting process by a number of our security agencies.
Applications by foreign students to our colleges and universities are down significantly. Many of our high tech jobs are leaving because they rely on foreign workers. Many foreign vacationers are foregoing the United States for other countries. Here in Maine, as well as other parts of the country, employers find it difficult to hire seasonal workers. In the past, many seasonal workers came from other countries. Many farmers are concerned they won’t have workers to harvest their crops.
If these same standards were in effect 95 years ago, I don’t know if my parents would have been allowed into America. How many reading this would be here now if their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had to meet the proposed standards? When I moved to Maine in 1955, I had many friends whose parents and grandparents didn’t speak English. Many businesses wanted clerks who were bilingual.
If we want to continue being a great country, we need a younger work force that is eager to learn. We need to continue being a country of compassion and diverse cultures.
We need to stop fearing those who seek refuge and a better way of life.
Stanley Tetenman is a resident of Poland.