Recently, I have heard much conversation about the issue of immigration. This is a topic, not only in political debates, but also in daily discussions about the future well-being of our country. How should we respond to those people who want to immigrate to the United States? Suggestions range from total exclusion to some kind of open door policy. Certainly there are valid points to be made on any side of the issue.
I was sitting on my backporch on one of these pleasant fall evenings praying as I do. I prayed for our country, for our world, and for a list of people and concerns that changes daily.
I thought about workers who were to arrive early the following morning to finish putting a new roof on our home. I prayed for them and for their safety. As I did, I realized that most of them were Latinos. Some were bilingual, most spoke Spanish.
You might say the immigration issue came home to me. I spent some time reflecting on the issue, thinking about how I feel about people from other countries coming to America.
Though of Dutch 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 farm 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 in this country if they are 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. Auto workers in Detroit, coal miners in Appalachia, textile workers in the Upstate, and others in the work force were once 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 were admired. John Henry, swinging his nine-pound hammer, and Paul Bunyan, wielding his oversized ax, were immortalized in legend and in song. We value people who work hard for a living.
Several years ago, I traveled with our son Kris for a meeting in Clinton, South Carolina. In a local restaurant, Kris and I had coffee across the table from two Islamic men from Greenwood, South Carolina. One man, an employee of the Fuji Company, was an emigrant from India. The second man, a worker for the United States Postal Service, was originally from Pakistan. Our conversation was enjoyable. They paid for our coffee.
One hot afternoon three years ago, two men working on a construction project at the church I served had taken their lunch break. They were sitting in the shade before returning to the job. I greeted them and thanked them for their hard work. Though their conversation with each other had been in Spanish, they responded to me in English. Jorge and Juan were their names. I knew little about them – immigrant or citizen, green card or not – but I admired the way they 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 recently been highly debated in Congress, in the public media, and among candidates for political office..
An interesting article in the New York Times in 2009 addressed the immigration issue.
The article recounted a debate that occurred on the Senate floor seven years ago. Senator Pete Domenichi made an impassioned speech, telling about the arrest of his mother in 1943. Alda Domenichi, the mother of four and a PTA president, was 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 immigration 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?
Many of those who want to immigrate to America are struggling to survive, to escape the horrors of war and genocide. Should we welcome them and provide a haven for them? America has a history of being willing to receive those who were fleeing for life itself from tyrants and despots in the quest for freedom and opportunity.
Of course, the issue of national security plays an important part in the discussion. Are these people coming to America to help us become a stronger nation or are they coming as enemies? There is no doubt that we do need to be careful in the screening procedures we put in place.
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. These 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.
Jakob Lang immigrated to South Carolina from Switzerland, eventually taking up residence in Saluda County.
John Mitchell and his 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. Anthropologists tell us that even the people who were already here when the Mayflower landed, the Native Americans, were immigrants as well.
I have a favorite poem that is worth remembering. It was written by Edwin Markham and is entitled “Outwitted.”
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
The invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is inclusive, not exclusive.
The truth is that we Americans or our forbearers came to this land from somewhere else; many before there were laws stipulating whether it was legal or illegal. It is true that we must be careful, and people must obey the law. But it is true that we are immigrants all.
It is this melting pot that makes America strong. Our rich diversity makes America great.