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Immigrants All

April 27, 2009

Though of German background, Daniel Hutson was imprisoned in England because he was a debtor, or because he was a Baptist, or maybe both.  Once released from prison, Hutson immigrated to America in 1728.  When Daniel arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, the ship’s captain bound him over to a wealthy colonial plantation owner as an indentured servant, a common method of paying for passage to the colonies in the 18th century.  At the end of seven years of service, Hutson was given clothing, a few farming implements, and fifty acres of land. The land was in what is now Barnwell County, South Carolina.

The saga of Daniel Hutson, and many like him, has been repeated oft times in the history of the United States.  Immigrants have found a place if they were willing to work hard. 

African slaves came to this country against their will. African-Americans in the Old South and Latino farm workers in the Southwest labored in the sunbaked fields of prosperous landowners to sustain life for themselves and their families. Asians, Europeans, and a variety of ethnic groups seeking a brighter future came to our shores, becoming a part of the melting pot that is America.

The American work ethic is a treasured value in our land.  Auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in Appalachia, textile workers in the Upstate, and others in the workforce have been recognized as the backbone of America.  Those who “tote that barge and lift that bale” in the Mississippi Delta or wrangle cattle on the Great Plains are admired.  John Henry swinging his nine-pound hammer and Paul Bunyan wielding his oversized ax are immortalized in legend and in song.  We value people who work hard for a living. 

One hot afternoon recently, I was waiting in line for a traffic light to change near the Cedar Springs Shopping complex.  I noticed an older Hispanic man building a retaining wall.  He worked steadily, lifting and placing one massive stone after another.  Though he said little, when he spoke, his language was Spanish.  I know nothing else about him, but, immigrant or citizen, green card or not, I admired the way he worked. 

The words of Emma Lazarus are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

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 tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 

Lady Liberty extends an invitation that endorses a remarkably open immigration policy, one that has been highly debated in Congress and in the public media.

An interesting article in the New York Times addressed the immigration debate.  The article recounted that Senator Pete Domenichi made an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, telling about the arrest of his mother in 1943.  Alda Domenichi, the mother of four and a PTA president, was also an illegal immigrant from Italy.  Senator Arlin Spector acknowledged that his parents emigrated from Russia.  Senator Jon Kyl revealed that his grandparents came from the Netherlands.  Senator Mel Martinez fled Cuba when he was fifteen years old.  He lived in orphanages and with foster families until he was reunited with his family after four years. 

Like many of our national quarrels, the debate over immigation seems to revolve around the issue of the economy.  Do immigrants take jobs our citizens need, or do immigrants perform jobs nobody else will do? Does immigrant labor help the economy by increasing productivity, or do immigrants overtax the health and welfare services provided by government?

On the last day of April, 2006, Clare and I enjoyed lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. A nationwide boycott was planned for the next day, May 1, 2006. The boycott was organized by immigrants. The purpose was to remind us all how important immigrant labor is to our economy. As we were leaving the restaurant, Clare asked the manager, an industrious man who was born in Mexico, if the restaurant would be closed the following day for the boycott. With a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he answered, “We’ll be open. We’re catering one of the boycott events!”  That’s the kind of citizen this country needs!

A seafarer from England, Captain William Lawton, settled in the Lowcountry of South Carolina just twenty miles north of Savannah. An English soldier named Rheney traveled with General Oglethorpe as a guard and eventually settled near Augusta, Georgia. Three Scots-Irish lads left Belfast in Northern Ireland and sailed to the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. The three Presbyterian brothers traveled the Carolina Wagon Road from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to Chester County, South Carolina. They settled along Fishing Creek, establishing the Neely family in the backcountry. Jacob Lang immigrated from Switzerland eventually taking up residence in Saluda County, South Carolina. The Mitchell family came from Scotland to Lexington County, South Carolina. All of these families were immigrants. It is from these families that Clare and I are descended. 

The indentured servant Daniel Hutson, another of my ancestors, the one from whom I get my middle name, Hudson, was an immigrant. Anthropolgists tell us that even the people who were already here when the Mayflower landed, the Native Americans, were immigrants as well.

The invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is inclusive, not exclusive. 

The truth is that we Americans are immigrants all.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2009
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