In appreciation of immigrants

Where would we be without all the hardworking immigrants who take care of us?

At a recent conference in Denver, I was struck by how many hotel employees were immigrants. The housekeeping staff, whose work often is not noticed unless it’s not done, all spoke Spanish to one another. I didn’t ask, but the beautiful cashier in the hotel’s Starbucks café appeared to be Ethiopian. Convention center staff were many-hued, with many accents. At dinner in the hotel restaurant, I could no longer suppress my curiosity. It was the day that President Trump had issued an executive order limiting travel and halting refugee resettlement. I asked our waiter, Jam, what his home country was.

When he responded, “Iran,” I blurted out something like, “I hope you will continue to feel welcome here.”

He stepped out of his waiter role and looked right at me as he spoke. “Yes, I feel welcome here. I came to this country many years ago, when Jimmy Carter was president. I became a U.S. citizen.”

And then he launched into an animated description of America from an immigrant’s point of view. How in his neighborhood there are people of all different backgrounds, all different religions, but in America the important thing is that everybody works. Everybody shovels the sidewalk. Then everybody gets along. He tries to explain this to family and friends when he returns to Iran for a visit. If you don’t shovel your sidewalk, then things aren’t so good. But if you do your part, then you are part of America.

From all over the country, we, the conference attendees, were there to learn how to be better Christian educators. We were wealthy enough to travel and stay in a Marriott hotel, or we were studying or working where someone else was wealthy enough to pay our expenses. We were the people of privilege. I hope the hotel employees’ wages are enough to make a decent living taking care of people like us. They work hard.

This week I am in Pennsylvania with my mother, who is in the skilled care section of a lovely retirement community in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Until very recently, she was living independently here, so this is my first time to meet the medical and nursing staff. Her care is in the capable hands of people from China, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Russia, Viet Nam, and Korea, all first generation immigrants, working alongside U.S.-born people of varied ethnicity and races. I know where the immigrants are from because I’ve been asking them when I’ve detected an accent. I didn’t ask the head nurse because she is unmistakably a Philadelphian, but she told me that her father is black and her mother is Cuban. Registered nurses, aides, occupational and physical therapists, culinary workers, housekeepers—the array of workers who make the place run is a picture of cultural and racial diversity.

The elderly who are here are people of privilege, getting the best of care in their declining years. Sometimes there are challenges with speech or cultural differences between the older generation and the younger immigrant generation. The immigrants must work extra hard to overcome these challenges as they provide care. But as our population ages, where would we be without these hard-working immigrants? Who would take care of us, we who have the privilege of being born in America?

It is hard work just to be an immigrant. Every day is full of surprises and adjustments and negotiations and something new to learn—and for most, this happens in a non-native language. We make conversation about adapting to the weather, because this is the easiest thing to talk about, but there is so much more that is new and strange every day. Still, the practice of hard work builds an ethic of hard work. It also yields the rewards of hard work, both inherent and external. It’s no wonder that America has become the world’s leading nation in so many areas. It’s because we are a nation of hard-working immigrants. In my growing up years, when nearly everyone I knew was American-born and an ethnic dinner meant spaghetti or pizza, this was a claim I didn’t fully understand. Today, I watch immigrants and I see how that works.

Jam is right—if you work, if you do your part, if you shovel your sidewalk you are part of America. We need immigrants and their energy, their ideas, their capable minds and hearts and hands, and their willingness to work hard. Immigrants nourish us beyond the expansion of our cuisine. They enrich us beyond the broadening of our minds. They are vital to the spirit of America.

So here’s to the spirit of Lady Liberty in a xenophobic climate. It’s hard work to hold up that torch in every sort of weather, but she’s still at it, and I’m glad.

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