May 4, 2018

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Immigrants are not the issue, but attitude toward them is

Cynthia DewesImmigration is much in the news these days. Of course, this is and always has been a country populated by immigrants. Even the Native Americans immigrated to these shores at some point. However, since they were presumably the only inhabitants of the country at the time, they probably had a better experience of it being the “new guys” in town.

That’s because the immigrant experience has never been easy, and today it may be harder than ever. It changes over time with different ideas of why the immigrants come here and how they plan to fit in. Personal freedom is always a reason, but there is financial betterment, access to education or culture, and lots of other reasons as well.

Immigrants tend to settle where they feel welcome, often in communities of folks who’ve come from the same country, relatives who’ve preceded them, etc. Or they go where they can find employment. When my paternal grandparents came from Norway at the turn of the 20th century, they went to Wisconsin where they lived with a family who’d arrived earlier. Many Scandinavians lived in the same area.

Grandma came all by herself at age 17 to live with her aunt who happened to be Grandpa’s uncle. So, when the two young people met, love flourished and they were married. Because of having little money and not much command of the English language, their work options were limited. Grandpa had been a wallpaper hanger in Norway, but there wasn’t much demand for that occupation here.

So, like new most of the new people. they became farmers, bought a small dairy farm nearby, and set to work running the farm and raising 11 kids. Their soil was rocky, and they spent lots of time rolling boulders into fence lines and working hard in the barn and fields.

At that time, becoming an American was the goal, and that meant speaking English no matter how old you were. My grandparents spoke only (broken) English to the children, subscribed to an English language newspaper and listened to the English radio. But not all their Norwegian friends were happy about it.

Once, when a new pastor began to hold services in English instead of Norwegian in their local Lutheran church, Grandma’s friends complained to her about it.

“What’s the matter with that?” she asked them, “Don’t you think God can understand English?” However, an unfortunate and unintended consequence was that the kids lost their Norwegian language and couldn’t speak it as adults. Today I think people try to keep both languages alive in their families.

Criticisms of immigrants include saying that they are clannish, that they stick with their own kind. But, so did the earlier immigrants. It’s natural for folks to want to live near those who share their attitudes, their faith, or whatever. People want to be comfortable in their surroundings, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Others claim that the immigrants are putting added financial burdens on schools or social services, or that they are taking jobs away from other citizens. But usually they take jobs no one else wants or is qualified to do. And when they’re employed, as most are, they pay into the upkeep of schools and social services just as the rest of us do.

In the end, we need to remember that regardless of our race or religion or place of origin, immigrants are just like us. We’re all Americans.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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