Which do you want first, John F. Kennedy's tear-jerking "We're a nation of immigrants," or the "Let my people go" stuff, or the "Give me your tired and poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free?"
That last one is the beginning of the poem by Emma Lazarus
(immigrant) which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty (immigrant).
Immigration is an emotional issue. Whether you or your ancestors came here on a slave ship, in first class or steerage on an ocean liner, locked away in a ship's container or hidden and suffocating in the back of a semi, we all come from someplace else, and we all want to be part of the American dream.
No matter how tattered that dream might be today, people around the world have always bought into it. Ponce de Leon heard we had the fountain of youth here. My ancestors heard the streets were paved with gold. The evil bastards who run al-Qaida must believe it or they wouldn't be so adamantly against it.
My father's parents came from Eastern Europe. They were citified Jews from Odessa on the Black Sea, a city of art and music. My grandfather played the clarinet in the Czar's Army Band. They came here to escape the pograms, the slaughter in the streets of Russian Jews. But no matter how citified they were for Russia, they weren't ready for New York. And New York in 1918 wasn't ready for them. They were culture carriers from another land. They wore strange clothes, looked strange, had different hygiene habits, ate strange food and spoke a strange language. Even New York Jews looked down on them.
My mother's mother, for example, was from a family that had come over from England (by way of Poland) before the turn of the 20th Century. By the time they arrived in New York, they all spoke English. They were refined enough so that the American-born daughters got jobs in millinery and the men - well, my great-great-uncle Morris was a chasseur, an artist in metalwork, and he did the decorations on the old street lamps that once lighted Fifth Avenue.
Because my father was a first-generation American, my grandmother didn't think he was good enough for her daughter. That's the kind of snobbery we had going on back then. Doesn't it sound familiar?
The great lesson my parents learned was to blend in. Conform. Do what everyone else is doing. Don't offend. My father would say, "Always be like the willow tree and bend with the wind." He would illustrate the bending by rocking the flat of his hand. Assimilate, assimilate, assimilate.
The lesson was lost on me because I was pure American and a rebel through and through. But now that I watch Congress demonizing immigrants, and see millions of Latin immigrants marching for their rights in the streets of America, I become the child of immigrants once again and am filled with pride.
These marching immigrants have a different skin color. They speak a foreign language (soon it will be the most-spoken language in the United States). They have different cultures, music, food.
Congress's response? Criminalize, punish, demonize, strike down, repress, build walls, deport and scorn. You have to wonder, do congresspeople actually sit in wood-lined rooms drinking scotch and saying, "We need to win the next election. Divide and conquer always works. Who can we demonize? Illegal aliens? Brilliant! And they can't even vote!" Sometimes Congress is cartoon-like in its villainy.
The new immigration laws, from which Congress is now wisely backing away, are certainly racist. Congress should learn from my father: it should bend like the willow and bend. It should welcome the immigrants and help them assimilate.
Europe has trouble now with its Muslim immigrants because they were isolated and ghettoized. But these Latin American immigrants want to learn English. They are already working. They wave American flags. They are proud to be here.
They are taking our jobs? Then how about criminalizing politicians like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who sold our blue-collar and white-collar jobs abroad?
They have gangs? Well, the Italians brought us the Mafia. The Jews brought us Meyer Lansky. The Russians brought us enough gangsters to keep "Law and Order" in endless reruns. Asian gangs terrorize Chinatowns - again, my point of reference is "Law and Order." Every culture has its dark side.
My grandmother was just 16 when she and her sister memorized their false identification papers. Then these two young, innocent and frightened girls paid a guide - a coyote - to help them walk from Odessa on the Black Sea over mountains to a European port. There they boarded a ship to America. They never saw their families or "the old country" again. They married, worked hard, had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren - all of whom enjoy the bounty of this great country. They died as Americans.
"Columbus didn't have a green card" was written on a sign carried by one of the demonstrators this past week. No, he came over from Spain, raped, murdered, destroyed and claimed. The European take-over of North and South America was bloody and cruel. Immigration comes in waves. It's a force of human nature, a response to intolerable circumstances somewhere else. It never ends. Here, in a nation of immigrants, we have a chance to do it right.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in southern Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. A collection of her columns, called "A Thousand Words or Less," will be out in May. Email to: email@example.com.