In parts of northern Michigan, enormous pine trees tower over the highway. Standing in endless rows, they were planted as a reforestation project of the Civilian Conservation Corps — one of the countless government programs meant to keep starving Americans fed during the Great Depression. The trees are noble relics of an era of intense suffering and struggle. I doubt that many of the vacationers traveling “up north” notice or appreciate how far America has come since the time those trees were planted. They’re a testament to how America has grown and changed.
The divisions we face as a nation — especially the liberal-conservative clashes over issues like health care and immigration — are so contentious because they ask us to redefine or reinforce the values that distinguish this country. But what those values are isn’t always clear, especially when the values we think America should uphold don’t match the values she actually has.
I’m thinking of how we treat immigrants, an issue with a rich and, at times, dark history in this country. In his speech about immigration earlier this month, a response to an explosion in contentiousness surrounding the issue, President Obama reminded America of a poem by Emma Lazarus, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “ ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ Lady Liberty says. ‘Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ ” I know of no more powerful an expression of the American ideal of what immigration is supposed to be.
But actual practice has shown the “golden door” to be shut to all but a few. For years, Asians were ineligible to be citizens and anti-Semitism ran wild. In one extreme case in May 1939, a ship carrying over 900 German Jewish refugees traveled to Miami seeking safety from the Nazi regime. After weeks of negotiation with the U.S. government, during which they could see the lights of the city in the distance, the St. Louis was refused entry and the ship was forced to return to Germany, where many of the passengers died in concentration camps.
We’re not always so good at living up to our ideals. But when we have, the results have been pretty extraordinary. My piano teacher fled to the U.S. during the Soviet occupation of Hungary in the 1950s. She told me she faced down a Soviet tank, clutching her baby to her chest when she ventured outside during a Soviet-imposed curfew to seek medical help for her sick child. Unlike the hundreds of Jews aboard the St. Louis, America provided her with the opportunity to live a long, fulfilling life. It’s no wonder that she’s the proudest American citizen I know. Her pride isn’t based, as it is for someone born in America, on learning in a classroom how unique this country is. Her love is based on the hard, real experiences of her life.
For some people, the accomplishments of our past represent what’s great about the America that is. But national pride fuels nativist sentiment and a desire to keep immigrants out in order to preserve what America has become. Yet in a nation of immigrants, every accomplishment we have known has been built through immigration.
In the majestic forests Americans planted up north, I don’t see a perfect legacy — I see correction. The CCC wasn’t planting. It was replanting after the natural forests were destroyed. It was correcting the mistakes of our past. I hope that in determining the direction of our future in addressing immigration, we’ll deviate from the actions of our forebearers that contradict values our country professes to uphold.
Immigration is the one thing we all have in common. As much as we may disagree, as different as our opinions may be, we are all the products of immigration. It’s also something Americans have screwed up, time and again — the dream of Emma Lazarus never realized. The lesson of Lady Liberty is that the past doesn’t make a country or a people great. What really matters are the choices we make now, and the vision we have for the future.
Nicholas Clift can be reached at email@example.com.