Candidate for 27th Congressional District says immigration is lifeblood of America
Not very long ago, a man who had ambitions to become President of the United States wrote a book, declaring that the security of our country was being threatened by a mass influx of immigrants. It wasn’t that he was anti-immigrant, the man explained: America had been built by “men of sturdy stocks of the north of Europe…which…every year added to the vital working force of the country…” These new immigrants, coming in their millions, were a different breed. They were “multitudes of men of the lowest classes,” the man explained. They possessed “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” Our enemies were using the United States as a dumping ground for their criminals, their handicapped, and their mentally ill. If we didn’t take steps to stop this flow of undesirables, and find a way to deport the ones who were already here, America was doomed.
This isn’t what you think. These words were not written by any current politician. They don’t refer to immigrants from Mexico, or Africa, or those of Muslim heritage. They come from a book, History of the American People. They were written by Woodrow Wilson, who became 28th President of the United States. They were written about immigrants from “the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland.” They were written about our ancestors.
There was a time, barely one hundred years ago, when our grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country from places that were poor and oppressive and torn by war. They came here, ready to work. They came here, looking for a better life for their children.
What they found was men like Woodrow Wilson, powerful and influential leaders, who declared them too slow-witted, too lazy, too dangerous to deserve a place at the American table. At Ellis Island, director William Williams created a set of standards to determine who should be allowed entrance to the United States, and who should be forced to take the long voyage back to Europe. Williams was a believer in eugenics, the now-discredited pseudoscience that moral, mental, and physical weakness could be pinpointed to genetic heritage.
Young French women were almost always denied entrance at Ellis Island, because Williams and his top assistant, Dr. Henry Goddard, believed that young French women were genetically inclined to be prostitutes. People were denied entry based on the shape of their skull or the length of their fingers: stubby fingers were a sign of slow-wittedness. Goddard even coined a word, to describe those he ruled unfit to become Americans. He called them “Morons,” an adaptation of the Greek word meaning, “dull.”
One of my great-grandfathers, Piotr Litwin, was less than five feet tall when he landed at Ellis Island. For some of the eugenicist examiners, Piotr’s height alone was enough to send him back to his tiny village in southeastern Poland: short people were too weak for factory work, and too slow-witted to do anything else.
Miraculously, Piotr won admittance to the USA. He settled in North Tonawanda, in the collection of shanties on the unpaved roads that would become The Avenues. He got a job, at the Buffalo Bolt plant. He got married. He made sure his children went to school, learned English, studied hard. He saved his money and eventually bought a business. That business became Litwin’s Bar and Grill, a major gathering place in Third Ward, and home of a legendary Friday fish fry.
Piotr’s descendants include three attorneys, a writer for a major American newspaper, several college professors, a number of nurses and medical professionals, a successful small business owner, an award-winning composer, several teachers, and one town supervisor/congressional candidate. By my count, more than fifty of Pitor’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have earned college degrees, many of them advanced degrees. Piotr, who insisted on being called Peter once he settled in America, is an American success story. And it only a bit of good fortune that enabled him to settle here in the first place.
My family’s experience is not unique. Nearly everyone who reads this can tell a similar story of ancestors making the sacrifice to cross the Atlantic, of the terrifying examination process at Ellis Island or some other point of entry, of facing prejudice and poverty and years of backbreaking labor, and finally, of their descendants reaping the fruit of this amazing, bountiful country.
All of those people who were hated and mistrusted and mistreated a hundred years ago, the Italians and Poles and Hungarians and Russians, our ancestors, our families, they are the people who made America great. This country would be a lesser, weaker place without the contributions of those immigrants.
Immigration is the lifeblood of a vital, dynamic democracy. It is scary, embracing that truth. Our natural inclination is to pull back from the unfamiliar, to distrust. We are better than Woodrow Wilson. We know the power that comes when we open ourselves to new ideas, new people.
When we are tempted to close our hearts, we need to remember the experiences of our ancestors. We need to remember Peter Litwin, and all the men and women like him. And we need to change. Most importantly, we need to remember who we really are and what made us strong.
God bless America. May it be a beacon to the world forever.
Grand Island town supervisor
(McMurray is a Democratic Party candidate for the 27th Congressional District.)