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Immigration has made America great

Jun 25,2024 - Last updated at Jun 25,2024

June is National Immigration Month in the United States, an appropriate time to reflect on the special role of immigrants in enriching this country.

Far from a threat to America’s vitality, immigration has been a life-giving force in every generation helping the country grow. It’s evident in communities across the United States as new immigrants and refugees come with their hopes and dreams for a better life, and their energy and determination to prosper and provide for their families. They’ve also brought unique cultural characteristics that contribute to making America the country it is today.

It is too often forgotten in times of economic stress or political polarisation, as xenophobic bigots rise up demanding that America’s doors be closed. Immigrants are presented as a threat to citizens’ economic well-being and “American culture”. They raise slogans like “you will not replace us”, “immigrants don’t share our values” or they’ll “pollute the blood of the country”.

What these anti-immigrant bigots forget is that their own ancestors were often greeted by the same fears and exclusionary slogans when they first came to America. Also forgotten is that there’s no uniquely American culture without the contributions of immigrants. What would American culture be without the music and dance of Scots-Irish and African Americans, the food of Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, Greeks and Arabs, or the arts and humour of Eastern European Jewry, and the contributions to science, medicine, art, and business of countless others who’ve made us the country we are today.

These two competing visions of America have come in successive waves. Sadly, some descendants of earlier waves of immigrants who were reviled a century ago have become the xenophobes of today. But thankfully, the bigots of every period, after doing short-term damage, have always lost as the more inclusive spirit of America has triumphed. When inclusion wins, America wins.

A recent visit to my hometown, Utica, NY, is illustrative. Utica has always been a community of immigrants. First came the Germans, Welch and then the Irish, to dig the canals and work in the city’s factories. Then, beginning with the turn of the last century, came a massive influx of immigrants from Italy, Eastern and Central Europe and Lebanon. By mid-century Utica had a population of over 100,000, living in ethnic neighbourhoods and working in Utica’s factories for middle class wages.

My neighbourhood was largely Italian, with some Poles and remnants of Utica’s dwindling population of German descent. When the factories closed in the second half of the century, moving production to the non-unionised south or overseas, the city began a slow steady decline. The population was halved, homes were abandoned, neighbourhoods left in ruin and businesses closed.

At that point Uticans did something very American, opening a refugee centre beckoning immigrants and refugees from far and wide. They welcomed newcomers, helped them resettle and find employment and provided services needed for their acculturation into a new environment. This endeavor’s success is evident.

After decades of decline, Utica’s population grew back to 64,000. Thousands of Bosnians, Burmese, Russians, Vietnamese, Africans, Latin Americans and Arabs (from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen) have settled in Utica.

My sister pointed out the rich cultural diversity that makes up her street with families from Sudan, Burma, Poland, and Bosnia, and African American and Latino families, living side by side. Once-shuttered businesses have reopened, homes and neighbourhoods that seemed unsalvageable have been restored to their original beauty. Gardens are growing everywhere, and children are playing in the parks. The city has come back to life.

The last census shows that almost one in five Uticans are foreign born. Forty different languages are spoken in the city. Within less than a generation, these diverse groups will become American, becoming Democrats or Republicans, following their favourite baseball or football teams, with kids who listen to popular music. They’ll become American, and America itself will be transformed by them and their contributions. My friend Mike Baroody, a Lebanese American who served in the Reagan administration, calls this the wonderful alchemy of becoming American, as immigrants become American, their addition to our cultural fabric changes America.

A final word to the xenophobes: It is this absorptive and transformative quality that has made America great, not your exclusionary bigotry.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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