We Are All Immigrants

We all came from somewhere else. Maybe not in this generation, but somewhere in the not too distant past, we came from somewhere else.

This week, my country celebrated its political beginnings, a time of rebellion and war, a time of rising up against an imperial, oppressive power, and going ahead on our own.

America was a different place in 1776, thirteen separate colonies. Slavery was an accepted economic reality, and times were hard. Only white men who owned property could vote, and earning a living meant hard physical labor and going without much of what we would think are necessities.

Back then, we welcomed immigrants: new blood, new energies, new ideas. We needed more farmers, more merchants, more people in the cultural melting pot we have come to know as America. And, the America today is a result of all of those waves of immigrants, and the optimism and challenges that brought our ancestors here for a new beginning.

On our nation’s birthday, just before my neighbors decided to shoot off their fireworks at dusk, a photo showed up on my phone. My friend had landed at an American airport, and he had just passed through immigration and customs.

The photo told the story: his face ablaze with the biggest smile. He held a paper stamped with the date, and the words “inspected”. It was official. He was now a documented resident of the USA, a big step to becoming a citizen.

Becoming a citizen in this country now is a challenging, difficult journey, far different than when my dad made the trip to the local courthouse, filled out a form, and quickly became “legalized”, a citizen.

My friend’s journey is longer, more convoluted. It involves a lot of expensive paperwork, and a flight to another country and back again. And, he’s only halfway done with the process, even though he came here when he was seven years old.

Now, years later, he’s a college student, and has a career, a marriage. He is finding his way, focused on a profession, giving back to his community, showing his younger siblings they, too, can live the American dream.

His story is my family’s story, too. This anniversary day of independence, of throwing off the oppression of an unjust government, the shackles of poverty and hopelessness, of coming to a new land and being able to work hard and make a new, better life for yourself and your family, is the American story.

It is my story, and now, it is my young friend’s story.

Some of my ancestors left the sweatshops of an English woolen mill, becoming farmers in their new land, working as farm laborers on an unforgiving Iowa farm in the Midwestern heat. They became citizens, raising a new generation of farmers, Americans.

They took the Oregon Trail, finding a new land, and their own farm, becoming homesteaders, new Oregonians. As a child, I heard my grandmother tell the stories of carving out a farm in the forest, a winter spent in a leaky shack with a canvas roof. The next summer, they built a cabin and a barn, herding their new cows for a week through the forest to their new farm.

After the barn and the cabin, they built a school, taking their hard earned money to hire a teacher and educate their kids. Those immigrants, those refugees from an English woolen mill, they built a new life in a new world.

My grandfather came here, too, yet another immigrant, fresh from a prisoner of war camp after the First World War. There was nothing for him where he had come from, except poverty and disease. Coming to American offered hope, opportunity, a new beginning. He, too, worked as a farm laborer, learning English after a long day, taking the steps to become a citizen.

On the other side of the family, there are other stories, of pulling up stakes and moving to a new land, the promise of education, the value of hard work and adjusting to challenges, the possibilities that came with America’s promise.

Looking back, I see that all my family were immigrants. Coming to America, making your life better, working hard, it was who we were, and who we are.

Looking around, I see that my town was built by the sweat and commitment of immigrants, newcomers who didn’t take opportunities for granted, but were willing to work and make this community their home.

American immigration isn’t just Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Not eighty miles away from here, over 100,000 immigrants came to Oregon through the Knappton Quarantine Station on the Columbia River, from the 1880s to the 1920s. We are literally a nation of immigrants, refugees seeking a better life.

They came seeking what my friend wants: opportunity, freedom, a chance to be part of a great freedom-loving nation.

We celebrate the Fourth of July, and in doing so, we also celebrate our history of welcoming others, to make this nation even stronger, even more a land of opportunity.

My family all wanted the same thing: opportunity. They wanted justice, and freedom from violence and a dead-end, oppressive life. They wanted a chance to prove themselves, and make a better life for their kids. They were willing to work hard, and make sacrifices.

They built farms and schools, created communities, and raised their kids. They worked hard, and helped make this country strong and healthy, a place where the rule of law and individual rights are common values.

My friend wants that, too. He sees a bright future for himself and for his family here. He’s working hard, and wants to do his part in making America an even healthier, stronger place, a place where freedom and justice for all is just not a political slogan, but a deeply held belief, and an aspiration for all of us.

–Neal Lemery, July 6, 2016

Turning 21 and Going Out for a Beer

Turning 21 is a big deal. It is the traditional “coming of age” birthday, the day you really become an adult, and everyone knows it.

It’s the day you can go out for a beer with your buddies, and walk into a bar, legal for the first time.

It’s a rite of passage, one we all look forward to, one we all celebrate.

Back in the day, it was truly the day you became an adult. You got to vote, you could own property, you had all the legal rights of adulthood. Now, we’ve pushed all the legalities back to 18, or even earlier.

Still, turning 21 is still a big deal, a moving into adulthood, no questions asked.
When you’re in prison, the day is just another day. No going out to the neighborhood bar for a beer, no big party. No bartender checking your ID and giving you a thumbs up, as you order your first legal drink.

My young friend called me the other night, on his 21st birthday. It was about his bedtime, and the prison dorm was settling down. He didn’t have a party, and no one made a fuss over his big day. I’d sent him a card, the only one he got. Some of his friends were having a get together, but they couldn’t invite him. He doesn’t live in their “unit”, and he couldn’t be a part of their party of some snacks and a movie.

I couldn’t take him out for a beer, either, but that’s what he needs. He’s been in prison for five years, and has four more long years to go. I’m one of the few on his visitor’s list, one of the few normal ones who show up. Sometimes, his family comes, but that’s a tough day for my friend. Too much insanity, too much manipulation, too much of the old dysfunction. Like a lot of guys there tell me, he thinks prison is the best place he’s ever lived.

It’s a long, long time, his prison time, especially for something that happened when he was supposed to be in middle school, but his parents hadn’t bothered to make sure he went., The relationship he had with a girl was encouraged by all of the parents. Family dysfunction was the theme of his youth, and they kept him away from school and friends. What we like to think of as a normal life, and normal values was foreign to him, until he got to prison. It’s a too familiar story, dysfunction junction.

Not that he’s wasting his time now, though. He’s finished high school, earned an associates degree, and just now is starting on his second degree. He’s taking advantage of all of the on line education the system is offering him, and has a respectable 3.9 GPA.

He’s teaching a lot of the other young men in prison, as well. He’s a leader, and a tutor, and makes sure they are working hard and moving ahead. He’s the junior counselor, the mentor, the older brother a lot of the guys need.

We get together every couple of weeks, to talk about books we’ve read. We’re our own writing group, exchanging essays and poems we’ve written, offering each other some valuable critiques. He reads serious books, and I’ve been sending him some of the classics in philosophy, science, and history. He absorbs all of them, and is eager to have a discussion with me about what he thinks, and what the authors were trying to say.

If we were college roommates, he’d be the guy who lived at the library, and went on to grad school, just because it was fun to study, read books, and challenge the professors with his take on the tough subjects.

He’d still be the guy I’d like to go out and have a beer with, on Friday afternoon, after the last class of the week. He is serious about his guitar, and writes some thoughtful songs, lyrics with several layers of meanings, and chord progressions that please the ear. He laughs and jokes about life, and the dramas and politics in his life.

Yet, when he called that night, the night of his birthday, he was all alone. He reached out to me, making small talk about our writing, good books we’re reading, a bit of music. It was almost everything we wanted, in that phone call, talking as good friends, kindred spirits. All that was missing was the beer.