Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On July 4th: Celebrating a Nation of Immigrants

As a young teacher, I got an object lesson in America's great legacy of immigrant achievement. My first job, in the early 1970s, was teaching American History and Civics at Bristol Junior-Senior High School in Bristol, Pennsylvania. Bristol was the very incarnation of the glorious mix of immigrants who came together to make the country the model for the world.

My students were a rich mixture of cultures: English, who came over with William Penn as the original immigrants in the 1700s; Irish, who came to escape the devastating potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and 50s; African-American, who settled in Bristol - an early stop on the Underground Railroad; Italian, who came to the area to build the railroad highline that still runs through town, and Puerto Rican, who first came to the area in the 1950s to work seasonally in the large farms surrounding town, but who eventually settled down in town.

It was a great pleasure to teach children from these various backgrounds about The Revolutionary War, The Constitution, The Bill of Rights, The Fourteenth Amendment, The Civil Rights Era, etc. I coached the baseball team in those days and my roster was reflective of the school's diversity: Mancuso, Santiago, Burch, Dixon, Murray, Stevens, Paleafico, Spadaccino, Marozzi, Sanchez, Johnson, Petrizzi, Childs. LaRosa.

A new entry to this blend came in the early 1970s, when the first refugee from Vietnam entered my eighth grade American History class. Her name was Thuy Bui. Thuy was tiny, quiet, and spoke no English. She endured the teasing that is typical of middle school students who had difficulty accepting this very different looking, different dressing, different sounding classmate into their mix. But Thuy persevered. In less than six months her English was exemplary; within a year she was one of the top students in the class. Thuy went to college and medical school and returned to Bristol to start her medical practice.

Whenever I read the news reports about the current immigration debate, I think of Thuy. The Vietnam war was not the finest moment for this country, but at least we took the responsibility to make sure that some of the families sent adrift by our policies got a new chance to have a life in the US. These people, like Thuy, took that opportunity and ran with it in a country that afforded them that opportunity.

On this Independence Day, I think it is only right that we remember all the veterans who served our country and all the veterans who served in the Vietnam War. I suspect that the roll call of those veterans would create a list of names not unlike those on my baseball team roster. But I also think it is a very good idea to reflect on our country as a nation of immigrants. A nation not only built by, but sustained by a healthy and constant stream of immigrants. And while we may argue about legal and illegal immigration, building walls and separating families, surely we cannot deny that one thing that makes the country great is that immigrant quest for a better life that all of our ancestors shared.

Happy 4th.