Immigrants and the baggage of guilt

Do you love America?

I do, unabashedly. Always have, always will.

I can say that because I do not confuse America, which are aspirations and ideals, with the government, which can be less than lovable. And not just the current one.

Documentarian Alexandra Pelosi. (Photo: ZumaPress.com/Newcom

Governments are temporary. American ideals are eternal. 

As a nation, we have not always lived up to our ideals, starting  with slavery, the original sin that was brought to North America by Europeans in 1609. 

The American clock began ticking in 1776, when we declared nationhood. From that moment, we owned slavery, and it took us 90 years to get rid of it, at great cost.

Along our pathway, the rich, the white, the male, the Christians often had the upper hand,which was true almost everywhere in the First World. In recent decades, the free-white-capitalist-democratic world has been making efforts to level the playing field so that nonwhite-nonmale-nonChristian people have a better chance for success. No one should object to this, but some do — mostly white Christian males.

One group, by and large, that doesn’t accept the baggage of guilt is immigrants who believe in the American Dream.

Remember that? 

It’s what brought my grandparents here, and likely yours. How I revere them. Because of their brave journey, I was born an American and an heir to the American Dream.

And you know what? It exists today. The truest believers in the American Dream are immigrants, and that brings me to today’s subject, a one-hour documentary titled, “Citizen U.S.A.: A 50-State Road Trip” from Alexandra Pelosi, who, yes, is one of Nancy’s daughters.

Don’t pre-judge.

When her husband, Dutch journalist Michael Vos, became a U.S. citizen, she was inspired to do a documentary on naturalization for HBO.

I can see the attraction, because for a decade I attended a naturalization ceremony once a year, and interviewed a brand new American. Over the years my group included Europeans, Africans, Asians, Arabs, young and old, male and female.

I found it inspiring and refreshing to see people from Azerbaijan to Zambia, right hands raised, taking an oath of allegiance to their new home. Most had been living here for at least five years, among us, seeing the divisions, the racism, the classism and the inequality — and yet wanting to join us, become us.

Why? Because it is better than what they had, which is something America’s natural-born critics cannot imagine.

Before I started interviewing the newest Americans, I expected to hear “freedom” as their chief reason for coming here.

I was wrong. Most came from democratic countries and had “freedom” of a sort. I did hear “freedom” and “safety” from some, such as the Iraqi Temple student who spent three years in a displaced persons camp as a child before winning the right to come here with her family. 

Most new Americans though, said “opportunity,” the ability to work hard and achieve success was why they came. They believed that here, yes, the sky is the limit. 

Before I introduce you to some of the “nobodies” Pelosi interviewed, she scattered in some notables, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. 

Her family escaped to England from Czechoslovakia as Germans marched in during World War II. Albright says people could not have been nicer and quotes the Brits as saying, “:Your country has been taken over by a terrible dictator, you’re welcome here, what can we do to help you, but when are you going home?”

Her family next came to the U.S., and were also treated well, and were told the same things, except Americans asked, “When will you become a citizen?”

That’s us.

Despite occasional periods when the welcome mat was withdrawn, most Americans like immigrants, legal ones, anyway.

Pelosi asked her immigrants for the thing they like best about America, or why they came here. Some answers were surprising. I’m starting with Hile Corri from Albania, because he, improbably, chose food to talk about.

“I grew up, my entire life, we ate just corn and bread. Nothing else. You cannot imagine here, here is everything like paradise,” he says with a broad smile.

“My favorite thing about America is the 9-1-1,” says Maria Hayes of the Philippines. “I love it because you just dial the number and then they come right away, for your rescue.” 

From Russia, Tatsiana Neudakh says, “I like customer service.”

“I stay here because I am a gay man,” says Hossein Alizadeh of Iran. “I cannot go back to Iran because of my sexual orientation.”

Cuban Nida Guerra wound up in Mississippi because her ex-husband was awarded a scholarship to law school in Oxford. “He said Oxford and I thought he meant Oxford, England, so I got excited,” she says. When she arrived in the Deep South, she felt culture shock. “I called my sister and said, ‘I am in Mayberry.’”

American culture is so pervasive both sisters knew what Mayberry meant. And it was positive — where strangers wave hello on the streets.

“Seeing America through the eyes of our newest citizens makes you realize all that we take for granted,” says Pelosi, at the end of her film. 

“The American Dream is alive and well.”

I know some of you, poisoned by your political beliefs, don’t believe that is true. Don’t argue with me — try to convince Madeleine Albright, Hile Corri, Maria Hayes, Tatsiana Neudakh, Hossein Alizadeh, Nida Guerra and the million new Americans who join our family each year.

19 thoughts on “Immigrants and the baggage of guilt”

  1. Quite an excellent blog Stu. I just wanted to add a few comments…

    – Even though our European forefathers used slaves for America’s first 150 years, over 80% of the slave trade was perpetuated by Muslim slave traders, who had been doing it since before the Middle Ages. It’s a little item the religion would like the world to ignore. Certainly two wrongs don’t make a right, however, and, as you have noted above, it is American’s original sin.

    – I have found over the years, as you have noted, that the majority of legal immigrants I have run into are generally quite industrious, even if their reasons for becoming citizens sometimes runs from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the same vein, I also have found some of them not being able to deal, practically speaking, with American culture. While I would normally say, “Viva le difference,” since I do enjoy seeing certain cultural differences, it can sometimes make for mal-adjusted neighbors or co-workers and becomes difficult to deal with them.

    – I especially love the Russian response above for coming to America: “It’s the customer service, stupid!” Having personally experienced the bad part of same over the years, especially the Russian version, I fully appreciate the Russian immigrant’s point.

    – Several Cuban immigrants I’ve known over the years were probably 10 times more patriotic than I could ever be, a natural citizen. I found they had, on average, the fullest appreciation of American citizenship than any other foreign nationality I’ve dealt with over the years. Our greetings to each other? “Viva America!” (Kind of splits the difference in language)

    – And finally, just to remind everyone, America accepts over 1 million legal immigrants a year into our country, which is more than any other country around the world. And to that extent, I think we’re doing a damned good job compared to the others.

  2. HAPPY MONDAY !!!
    Pallie,
    Nice writing as always, and as always, here’s my two cents.
    1) B.S. on your version of the “original sin”. My Father’s people would ( and still ) strongly object to that !
    2) Up until the ’80s, I used to travel quite a bit. I worked all over our country and out of the country. I always found, when
    given the chance, that people are basically good .
    3) I have always found that when people get the opportunity to come hear, live here and eventually becomes citizens,
    They are full of joy and pride for the country that welcomed them here.
    4) The freedom of choice, to live as you want. To not worry about some one knocking your door down in the middle of
    the night.
    5) Slavery has been apart of us since before we documented life. When a country invaded another, the soldier was
    killed ( young ), the women and children and those that were of some value were enslaved by the victor. The rest
    were put to deaf. It was the same all over the world. It was the same right here in North America before the white
    man.
    6) We do welcome more people into our country, on a path way to citizenship. The number keeps changing
    periodically. Right now, the number is down and will remain so for some time.
    One thing that I enjoy doing, even today. I like to engage a immigrant in a one on one conversation. When the other person realizes your concern is genuine, they open up. And then you have a new friend . ( Will Rogers; ” a stranger is a friend that I haven’t met yet” )
    Tony

    1. “I never met a man I didn’t like — until I met Will Rogers.”– Mort Sahl

      “We are sinners seeking to be saints.”– William F. Buckley, Jr.

  3. A terrific article, Stu. My grandparents, Mom’s and Dad’s, came here in the late 1880s from Italy. My daughter-in-law, married to my eldest son, is Austrian by birth but a naturalized American citizen. Two of her three children were born in Germany and have dual citizenship; her third was born in Texas(!). In other words, immigration is a huge part of my background and present-day life. My poker group (we play every Thursday, and have been since 1981) is all Jewish — from Russian and Spanish backgrounds. They say the same thing that overwhelms me when I hear it: “America is the last place in the world where Jews are safe.” LEGAL immigration keeps our nation fresh and alive because LEGAL immigrants want to become Americanized. I have seen firsthand (when I visited my son in Germany, where he lived for 14 years) the enclaves of illegal immigrants who infect Germany and refuse to assimilate. Which makes the Democrat belief in open borders and healthcare for illegal immigrants absolutely UN-AMERICAN. You’d think they’d be smart enough to realize how those ideas really piss off a huge number of us.

    1. I agree with your friends. On balance, considering everything including security, America is the best place in the world for Jews, and always has been, even when anti-Semitism was a thing. It has now been marginalized.

    2. Vince, Yo Pizon! I know we’re not directly related of course, but we ain’t far off…

      Maternal side is basically from Latvia and Austria, and they came to this country in the 1880s. Paternal side is from Italy, and then came here in the early 1900’s. Maternal side is Jewish, and that’s how I was raised. My Italian last name fools ’em all the time.

      Your point about LEGAL immigration keeping our nation fresh is spot on, even with the few wrinkles I posted earlier. And your point is well taken regarding illegal immigrants, although many of them are just trying to “escape” something (famine; poverty, political persecution, etc.), but assimilation continues to bug the “accepting” countries. However, most Americans don’t realize that, since the 1850’s, America never really had an open border policy, other than the slave trade at the time. It’s true that America has accepted many immigrants streaming over from Europe starting in the 1870s, and that’s why Ellis Island came into being, along with other far western points of entry for Chinese immigrants(SF). Point is, technically, we did not have open borders then, and haven’t since, except for a couple of Cuban incursions, and even that was executive fiat.

      You don’t have to be a dumbocrat to believe in open borders (yes, I actually run into a few repubs that are OK with this), but your point is otherwise well taken.

      1. Some humorous observations on being Italian:
        Italian Alzheimers is where you forget everything but your grudges.
        There was a man who was half Italian and half Jewish: he was a janitor, but he owned the building.
        It takes eight Italians to change a light bulb: one to change the bulb, one to argue that the bulb didn’t need changing, and six to be pall bearers.
        There’s more, but I can hear the PC Police approaching.

  4. “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” This was a 2016 campaign pledge made by candidate Hillary Clinton.
    My grandparents settled in Hazleton after abandoning the Emerald Isle. Here in Pennsylvania there were coal mine jobs. There was food. Labor unions offered protection for immigrants. I’m sure there are many Pennsylvania coal country residents who can share similar accounts of the immigrant experience. I believe that Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania because she failed to understand its significance.

    1. David,

      While you are fully correct politically speaking (Hillary lost ’em in PA), the coal industry didn’t need her to say it (putting coal miners out of business). It’s been happening for the last 15 years around the country without much input from the pols. Just a sign of the environmental times.

      1. Randy,
        Actually, coal speaking, the country was in a recession for most of those years. The Federal Government stopped the concessions ( $$$ ) instilling growth in an industry that was overtaken by the Asian countries. Money can buy clean air. They’re called “Scrubbers”. All of the trash to steam plants had them. Little known to the public. Those plants were capable of burning nuclear waste. Permits were never issued.
        Tony

        1. Anthony… Technically you are correct regarding the ability to buy clean(er) air via scrubbers on a coal-fired generator system. But you’ll have to take my word, as an electrical engineer, where this “cleanliness” starts to fall apart is in the fact that (a) efficiencies are lower on a coal burning system comparatively, and (b) the amount of clean up after coal burning is a substantial part of the generating cost these days, which leads to (c), natural gas is the current best substitute, and, even compared to a coal-scrubber system, puts out significantly less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The only thing that beats them all, at least for cleanliness and CO2, is, of course, something natural. Wind and solar are great, when you have them, and of course, falling water if you’re near this source. Our only long-term hope is fusion, but our stupid gov’t officials haven’t been putting the $$ into additional future research. One day we WILL run out of various fossil fuels, if we don’t run out of oxygen first due to the overuse of dinosaur friends.

          1. Randy,
            sidebar for you and Vince. I’m half Italian, half Cherokee. That makes me……….wait for it………. a WOPAHO ! ba ba bum bing bang crash…………………
            You two are right about one thing. Most people are still unaware of what used to be a large Jewish population until WW II. Same for Holland and the Netherlands to name only two.
            I have an under grad for civil eng.. I would have went for a masters, but too many concussions got in the way.
            Because coal is plentiful and cheap, it was the fuel of choice in the ’70s and ’80s. The other fuels where not being “pushed” at the time. Back when the Feds where trying to jump start the economy. The trade off is the by-product that went into abandoned mines and other such places.
            Jumping to fusion. In the ’70s, the battle was between Princeton and I believe Texas for the technology fight. Sorry to say, politics ( greed ) went for the faster, cheaper, more deadly rods. Right now, a consortium headed by the French are working on fusion. Hopefully, they’ll get it right, and if they do, we’ll have a place to put the hot rods.
            Tony

  5. I think you would find it hard for any human being to not respect and agree with the overall tenets of her writing. We must also recognize that complex problems do not always have simplistic solutions. Times change, people change and the entire world must be understood in new ways that affect how we participate and apply our resources. Immigration can be an ever-changing process with many complications and our Congress has been stagnating trying to legislate a policy insuring our safety and the successful entry of those who can make our country a better place based on our history of immigration. But in today’s world I fear an open border to those from around the world who want to enjoy the safety and rights given to all our citizens must have stipulations. A nonpartisan Congress must decide what the long term answers will be but in the meantime, a feel-good story is always enjoyable and hopefully will reflect millions of similar stories in our future.

  6. Spot on Stu.

    I travel internationally frequently for work (and no, it’s not glamorous after the first year… now on year 25 and counting. Work is a four letter word for a reason…) and while I appreciate the cultures, people and places I am privileged to experience, there is something about returning to the USA that always makes me appreciate what I have. Perhaps the freedom of speech, stocked supermarkets, 9-1-1 (which I’ve never used)… there is a spirit here that is hard to replicate anywhere, despite our problems.

    Btw – I live about an hour away from “Mayberry”… even after all the years, Mt Airy, NC still lives off of those images…

  7. Stu,
    What an education! Thanks to all of you!

    As to my ancestry ( English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swedish, and
    Nordic) just call me ‘Whitey.’
    And I do love America, guilt free.

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