SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, America is buzzing with talk of immigration reform. And rightly so. We need to seal our borders, and seal them tight.
But then comes the hard part. After glorifying "diversity" for decades, how do we get our deeply Balkanized people to start thinking like Americans again?
John F. Kennedy gave us a hint when he said, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
I am, of course, grateful beyond words to be an American. But why exactly should America be grateful for me?
While browsing the Usenet, I stumbled on an immigration debate.
One angry nativist wrote, "Aside from ethnic restaurants, can anyone tell me one thing that immigrants have contributed to this country?"
His words stopped me cold. All four of my grandparents were immigrants. My family and I are their legacy.
We’ve worked hard. We’ve prospered. Many of us have served in the armed forces.
But what have we done for America that the descendants of the Pilgrims could not have done just as well for themselves?
What have we offered our country that no one else could have offered?
I’m frankly not sure. But I’ll offer my theory.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I attended a poetry reading in the East Village.
People milled about beforehand, drinking wine. The conversation was typical East Village. People bashed Giuliani as a "fascist"; moaned about the rise of the "right wing"; wondered aloud when socialism would triumph in America.
"It’ll never happen," said one fiftyish African-American poet, shaking his head sadly. "You know why? It’s all these Russians and Eastern Europeans and Cubans coming in. They hate socialism."
He was right.
There are some immigrants – not all, but some – whose experience has taught them to love freedom more than life itself. Often they pass on that love to their children.
Take my grandparents.
My father’s parents were Russian Jews who lived through three revolutions, pogroms, a World War and a Civil War before finally emigrating to America.
My mother’s parents were Mexican Catholics, who crossed the border as refugees, fleeing the atrocities of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1920.
They came from different backgrounds, but my parents shared two things in common: A deep revulsion against the past, and an equally heartfelt determination that their children would grow up as unhyphenated Americans.
My parents spoke Russian and Spanish. But, in our house, only English was used.
Even my innocent questions as a child, seeking to learn more about our family history, were often rebuffed by my parents, who admonished me not to dwell on the past.
Their attitude baffled me. But later I came to understand. They were teaching me to be an American.
My mother came to visit last Thanksgiving.
The election crisis was raging. Fear was in the air.
Before the guests arrived, my mother and I spoke about the crisis, and she did something unusual. She began to talk about Mexico.
"My parents left Mexico to escape from these kinds of people," she said, "people who will do anything to gain power."
(Sorry, Democrats, she was talking about Al Gore.)
"They take over a country by stirring up envy among the poor. They stir up hatred against decent people who work hard and save and try to build something for themselves.
"Now those same people are trying to take power in America. I never thought I would live to see it here."
As she spoke, her eyes grew hard like black obsidian. And I felt the weight of Mexico’s somber history on my shoulders.
I still have my grandfather’s life savings from Russia, a thick wad of Tsarist rubles, beautiful and ornate, bedecked with portraits of the Emperor Alexander III.
Grandpa lived in hope that one day he might redeem those bills for U.S. dollars. But he was laughed out of every bank he approached, and died disappointed.
Sometimes, I take out Grandpa’s rubles to look and touch, and I tell myself, "Never again." And last Thanksgiving Day, as the memory of Pancho Villa darkened my mother’s eyes with anger, I also said in my heart, "Never again."
God willing, I will not be driven out, as my grandparents were driven. I will make my stand in America.
The wounds of my grandparents seem a small and evanescent gift to offer my country. Yet, in times like these, their worth may prove greater than gold.