I got to see the movie Brooklyn recently. This movie, released 2015 is about an Irish Immigrant to New York City in 1951. For many Anglo-Americans, we think our ancestors immigration experience happened like this:
Our great-grandparents were thrilled to arrive, with well-ordered paperwork, at Ellis Island, eager to have jobs and apartments in the US.
And of course, we forget that they were homesick, at first. That the paperwork wasn’t always in order, and that they weren’t always welcome. That some days, being new in the US was more like this:
Sometimes, our body is in one place, and our head is in another place. That’s what immigration feels like. That’s sort of what happens to Eilis (eye-lish) in the movie. She is excited to be in America. But she is also sad, because she left behind a family, and friends, and a job, and a church, and an entire country and culture that were her own.
America has always welcomed immigrants – but from 1925-1965, due to a global depression and three global wars, we received many fewer than we did before, or since. Now, we’re welcoming about as many immigrants as we did in 1900, but they look different (and our overall US population is different, too).
Some of our immigrants are refugees, asylum seekers, temporary workers, family members, or students. Some, like Eilis in the movie Brooklyn, don’t know what to expect when they get here or how long they’ll stay. All of the immigrants have a story – and that combination of stories is what makes up the American story.
Nearly all North Americans are here because of immigration. Legal immigration, I hear some of you whispering at the computer. Maybe. Maybe not. Before 1920, there were practically no U.S. immigration laws – the only exception, of course, was the legal importation of slaves until 1808. So if your family is European-American, like mine, they probably did whatever they did to get here, and when they arrived, they hoped for the best.
Maybe, 50 years from now, we’ll tell stories about families who arrived in 2016, on a plane or a car or a train, with a hope and a wish and a prayer for a future that will look very different from what they left behind.
Do you know your family’s immigration history? Do you know how they all got here, or when, or where they arrived? Do you know who they were before they tried to learn English, or went to school?
Or have we limited their story to “they came for a better life”? Which, in itself is telling – if our own family came for a better life, why do we expect current immigrants to come for anything different?