We Are All Immigrants

Aug 10, 2016

Ellis Island immigrants climbing steps to the registry room
Credit Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation

When I learned that our Radio Readers Fall Read would be themed “Stories: Borders and Becoming,” I began to think about what that might mean, exactly. We all have family stories of our beginnings and becoming in this country.  Whether we’re descendants of German  immigrants, Irish immigrants, Mexican immigrants, Asian immigrants, we all “just came here” at one time or another.  We have that story of becoming in common.

    My own family story of becoming began about 170 years ago, when my maternal grandfather, age 14, decided to seek his fortune in the New World.  He left his little town of  Kirkintilloch in Scotland, he lied about his age, and he took a job on a ship leaving Glasgow and headed for Canada. Once there, he managed to find his way across the Canadian/U.S. border, where he settled in Ohio and soon joined the Union Army when the Civil War broke out.

    On my mother’s side of the family, our story tells of hardships in Scotland and aboard ship, of walking across a border without need of papers, of dangers faced during wartime, and of eventual travel and resettlement in New Orleans.

    My father’s family story of becoming is more vague.  I have no idea which country my father’s grandparents came from.  All I know is that my paternal grandmother always told us stories of her elopement and getting married on horseback, of packing all their belongings into a train boxcar, climbing inside with their furniture, and of crossing borders, on rails, all the way from Kentucky in order to homestead in Oklahoma.

    It occurs to me that my own family’s stories of borders and becomings are not much different from the stories I hear from newer immigrants, people who come to this country in order to avoid starvation, people who cross into the United States in order to be free to earn a living for their families.  More urgently, I hear stories of people who cross our borders simply in order to live, to avoid starvation, persecution, and even mass slaughter.

    When I hear politicians talk about building walls to keep people from crossing borders into the United States, I wonder what has become of our country.  Don’t those politicians know that we are, like our history books tell us, a “melting pot”; we are “a land of opportunity”; we are “the land of the free.”  All of us just came here at one time or another.  

    Our country is made up of millions of people of a variety of cultures who have crossed over our borders for hundreds of years.  We have blended together, shared our ideas, our religions, our customs, our food, our stories--and we have worked together to create what has become the best country in the world.  Let’s keep it that way.