My parents arrived in this country as refugees from the tyranny of Nazi Germany. Their immigration was legal; their arrival actually reported in the New York Times. My mother was eight months pregnant. I was born a month later. Thanks to the 14th Amendment, I came into this world as an American citizen, the first in my immediate family. Perhaps the term is being used as a pejorative, but I proudly count myself among the so-called anchor babies. We helped anchor our families to this great land. What would America be without us?
For sure, my mother, who still spoke no English, was thrilled that her new son was born in American. While we never discussed it, I’m sure she did see me as kind of an anchor to a ship of family citizenship — hers, my father’s and my two older siblings — that would follow. We’ve all been good citizens. My father was a respected religious leader in Germany and became one here. His passion for liberty and equality led him the civil rights movement; President Obama has quoted from his speeches. My mother served as a nursing aide in our local hospital filling in for staff that had gone to the front. Their children and grandchildren care deeply about both the world and our country. As descendants of an immigrant family, we especially cherish our right to vote. It’s something that we all (into the third generation) do without fail.
Those who immigrated to America in my parents’ time — legal and illegal — didn’t come here to harm this country. They came to find a better life and to contribute their talents, and yes their loyalty, to the United States, not to diminish it. German Jews were a confusing lot to many of their new neighbors because, while they were persecuted refugees, they still spoke in the language (or with heavy accents) of the enemy. Japanese Americans felt that even more and into the second and third generation because, unlike my relatives, they looked different even if they didn’t open their mouths. The “other” was seen “a problem” then much as it is today. Indeed, consider the history of any immigrant family; be they Irish, Italian, Polish or any other, and you’ll hear stories that mirror the challenges faced by today’s Latino and increasingly Asian communities.
It’s one of those clichéd truisms to say America is an immigrant county. We’re still young, but there are families who can trance their roots back to the start — descendants of the Mayflower generation — or who are multi-generations away from arriving on a ship. But so many of us, like me, are still the children or grandchildren of new arrivals. Just read the obituaries of notables and you’ll see the life stories of many who came from foreign-born parents or who were themselves born abroad. People of immigrant stock who did well and who contributed significantly to what we think of as America.
Listening to the immigrant bashing coming out of the Republican field, either expressed or condoned by silence of evasive response, I find myself especially dismayed. At a time when refugees around the world are streaming out of battle zones, not to find a better life but first a foremost to survive, there is something especially unseemly, disconnected, in this campaign discourse. But as an anchor baby, I take the words spoken against my immigrant neighbors personally. And they are all neighbors. Each one of us, no matter where we live across this beautiful land, has immigrant neighbors. Those eleven million or so that some of the GOP candidates would like to deport, or who New Jersey’s “tell it like it is” overblown governor would like to tag like a FedEx package, live next door. Some of them helped build our house, repair the roof under which we live or pick the vegetables and fruit that we eat. Some have discovered medicines that will cure or coded the programs which we have come to consider essential to our functioning. Perhaps they depend on us, but more profoundly than we like to admit, we depend on them.
There are many reasons why I won’t be voting Republican in 2016 whomever they select as their nominee. Our ideologies don’t line up well on a host of issues. But the last weeks have given me a further and more personal reason. I’m an anchor baby and haven’t forgotten from whence I came.