I have two favorite American holidays – Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. I like them because they are so purely American, and because of all our holidays, they seem the least commercial, the most patriotic, and until now, the least political. With the man-made humanitarian crisis at our border, I am wondering if we have our priorities straight this 4th of July.
I come by my affection for these holidays honestly and not because I think I have any more right to be here than any of the rest of you. It should be unnecessary to say that unless you are Native American, your family is immigrant.
Until three years ago, I assumed that with the maiden name of Johnson (from Wisconsin), this meant I must be 100 percent Swedish and Norwegian. Imagine my amazement as our family has dived into our genealogy to learn that in 2030, 11 years from now, my family tree will celebrate 400 years as residents of what became the United States of America.
I would be remiss not to remind folks that when my English ancestors arrived in Massachusetts in 1630, there was already a colony of New Spain in Taos, New Mexico.
I have four 11th great-grandfathers from England, who helped settled Plymouth Colony and Massachusetts Bay Colony. One translated the Bible into Algonquin and printed the first full book in America. Another eventually helped write the charter for Yale University. Two, George Wyllys and John Haynes, were governors of the original Connecticut colony. Wyllys built Wyllys Hall, the site of the Charter Oak that can be found on the American [Connecticut state] quarter.
With that background, I think our family has some experience with American values and what it has taken to bring us to July 4, 2019. I have had ancestors in every war since King Phillips War, (in which one 11th great-grandfather took one side in this native civil war, and another apparently took the opposite side) through the Revolutionary War (Lit. Peter Pence, who may or may not mean I am related to VP Mike Pence), the Civil War, World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam. I also have a family tree that has blended English and Dutch with Scotch and Irish, added German to that, and then stirred Scandinavian genes into that stew.
They came here for the same reasons most American families have: for religious freedom, to escape constant European wars and violence, to join family already here, for land and commerce and opportunity. They came to be part of something big, grand, inspiring and ultimately — free.
My English/Dutch/Irish ancestors living in Pennsylvania put their covered wagons on the Ohio River, floated to the Mississippi and went north upriver to settle Pepin, in the new state of Wisconsin. During the 389-year process of assimilation, many of my immigrant ancestors faced discrimination as they assimilated. Not all of it was as benign as the “Sven and Ole” jokes so popular in the Upper Midwest.
My Scandinavian grandparents spoke English with an accent until the day they died. Their grandparents got here not through Ellis Island, but from the north, coming down through Canada and across Lake Superior. They were not met at the border by guards. Duluth wasn’t that formal back then.
Compare that to the travesty going on on our southern border as children, many families seeking what is an international right to request asylum, are being separated from their families and parents. They are being incarcerated in cages, treated like criminals, fed food many don’t feed to animals. Removing a child from his or her parents to this reality is childhood trauma and it should be condemned for what it is — child abuse.
As we celebrate our nation’s Independence Day – as wonderful as so much is about this country — we should all be ashamed of ourselves and our government for institutionalizing child abuse. This is not Christian. This is not human. It is not just, or fair, or American.
The waves of immigrants that have settled this country, including your ancestors and mine, arrived at our borders for a variety of reasons, but the reasons are the same. It might be a good thing if we stopped fearing immigrants, fearing the global economic changes underway, and remind ourselves that immigrants and their ingenuity are what built this country.
It underlies this truth: with the freedoms so many like to demand as their “right”, comes “responsibility” — to act decently, treat others as we want to be treated, and to speak up when injustice is done.