Commentary: Here’s What Makes America Great

Commentary: Here’s What Makes America Great

In the spring of 1937, my grandmother realized she and her family had to leave Germany. My aunt had just come home from school, her hair dyed black with ink and the words “Jew” written all over her clothes. This was the final straw. Within a matter of days, my grandmother, grandfather, aunt, and my mother (only 3 years old) snuck out of the little town of Dudelsheim, Germany, leaving everything behind and paying bribes to officials to obtain visas to exit the country. They boarded a ship to New York and were fortunate enough to have cousins who could sponsor their entry into America.

My aunt and mother were educated in America’s public schools and universities. My mother became a teacher and my aunt a doctor. My grandmother worked for the Girl Scouts of America and my grandfather became a die-hard Yankees fan. They became Americans. They loved this country and had a deep sense of patriotism, which continues through their children and grandchildren today. They would not have lived and I would not exist without America opening her doors to my family.

I am a high school teacher in Fairfax County. I teach many students who remind me of my mother and my aunt. These students and their families also came to America to escape violence, poverty, and religious or political persecution. And just like my family, they are Americans (whether a document officially says it or not). They love the opportunity this country has provided to them and want to make the most of it.

Each generation, the American dream is renewed and continued, by the ancestors of previous immigrants and by new immigrants. What made America great, and what will make America great again, is immigration. The first European immigrants to America came with the hope of religious freedom and economic prosperity. How is this any different than a family today wanting to come to America from Yemen or Guatemala? John Winthrop, an early leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said America needed to be a “city on a hill” whose light is a beacon. Leaders, such as President Ronald Reagan, have reminded and challenged us to live up to this vision that truly makes America exceptional among the nations of the world.

The current anti-immigration movement, spurred on by President Donald Trump suspending the DACA program, demanding a border wall be built, and calling for an end to so-called “chain immigration,” is troubling because it attempts to move our country in a direction different than our past. “Chain immigration” is why I am alive. It’s also why students from Iraq, Sierra Leone, and El Salvador are in my classroom, safely learning and thriving, rather than being killed or living in squalor. Should we stop being a beacon to these people?

Unfortunately, the anti-immigration movement is fueled by a belief that to allow others to have the opportunities we have as Americans is going to take away from our own wealth and prosperity. A prime example of this is the argument Virginia state Sen. Richard Black made against DACA students receiving in-state tuition, “Every time you give free stuff to people here illegally, you have to take it away from an American.” This understanding of economics is misguided as well as selfish. History has proven that the contributions of immigrants to America improves our economy, increases our tax base, and creates more jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Our region’s economy is a prime example of this. DACA students, and their families, are trying to live the American dream, and in doing so, they are contributing to, not taking away from, what makes America great.

From a moral argument, I am reminded of the story a Lutheran pastor recently told. He said imagine two rooms. One is well-lit and another right next to it is completely dark. When the door is opened, the light from the well-lit room enters the dark room and illuminates it. Yet, as that light spreads, the well-lit room continues to stay just as bright as it was before.

When America opens its doors, we do not lose our own wealth, prosperity, and well-being. Rather, we allow it to grow and spread and become greater than it was before. I urge you to remind Congress, our President, and all of us who make up this country to remember that immigration is what has and will continue to make America great.

The writer, an Arlington resident, is a social studies teacher at JEB Stuart High School and coordinator of the “AVID” program, an academic mentoring program to help students attend college, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.