I’m sitting around a small table at my dad’s retirement home. He’s on the far corner, and three women finish out the seats.
“You know,” he said, gesturing across the table, “her family is third-generation on the island.”
On Galveston Island, the term BOI — or born on island — carries an earned level of respect for hardened resiliency in the face of deadly hurricanes and dangerous flooding. A sandbar is, by nature — and because of nature — a curious place to build a town.
I look to a woman sitting to my left, her eyes like small orbs of light, smiles with sparkle of shyness.
“Yes,” she says. “My great-grandfather came over from Germany, my great-grandmother from Switzerland.”
A teenager, her great-grandmother crossed the Atlantic alone and with few prospects.
“Why did she emigrate?” I asked.
“To get a job,” she said.
Her words were so matter-of-fact — and timely.
Immigration is a problematic discussion these days as hundreds of thousands of people migrate toward the United States. Some legally, others not. But in the end, their reasons generally fall into a small number of categories. And from my experience, the motivation drawing my dad’s friend’s great-grandmother is a powerful draw: a job.
As much as we in the United States like to say we’re the world’s beacon of hope, we have never fully achieved the words etched into the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is a big ask of a nation that is in a constant state of reinvention. Wide-open immigration, as alluded to in these words, is more aspirational than reality. Managing immigration, right down to my mother’s in 1952, is filled with hoops, standards and commitments.
My uncle, a U.S. citizen, even signed a document to the government promising my mother would find gainful employment and never burden the American people.
The allure of a better life in the United States burns worldwide with the intensity of a supernova. Given an opportunity to support themselves and provide for a family can be a powerful magnet in this big, round world.
It is impossible for me to fully appreciate what it is like to live in the world those so desperate to come to America endure. If you’ve traveled beyond national borders, you will quickly be embarrassed at the sheer scale of wealth we enjoy in this country. And by wealth, I mean running water we can drink, the food we toss out on trash day and petty disagreements we can pick with one another over shades of gray.
Right now, tens of thousands are attempting to migrate to America because of a bi-directional problem: away from poverty, despair and persecution and toward a place where they believe self-sufficiency and self-destiny can happen.
This problem will not resolve with angry words but by addressing both ends driving the action. Only then can we fulfill the destiny of our promise etched on the Statue of Liberty.