The Immigrant has a special place in our national psyche. The story of the downtrodden coming to these shores, escaping religious and/or political persecution, working hard, building a home and making something of them-selves is the stuff of legend. The United States is described as a “nation of immigrants”, the melting pot of many cultures. Even our nation’s motto highlights this fact, as illustrated by the national seal, “E pluribus Unum”, Out of many one. Through popular culture we are led to idolize, even mythologize the good immigrant, excusing his or her short comings and celebrating their journey.
New immigrants like me see America as a land of opportunity; of laws, a society built on compassion, in which personal excellence, responsibility and the pursuit of happiness are things to strive for. I am not under the illusion that we have a perfect union, or that there are no social ills in our country. But it is also part of being an American that we should aspire to overcome such obstacles in the hope of perfecting the Union.
Minnesota’s early immigrant population came primarily from Europe. They were Germans, Swedes, Fins, Poles, Norwegians, Irish, Brits, among others. Along with Native Americans and African Americans, they helped shape the Minnesota of today. Their struggles and triumphs in building this great State is an inspiration to us all. Today their stories are told not only in the State’s history but also in the names of our towns, public spaces, educational institutions, places of worship and various community centers, such as the Ukrainian Center, the Swedish Institute and Sons of Norway.
The most recent large immigrant waves to Minnesota have mainly come from Central & Latin America, South East Asia and Africa. Like those before them, most sought refuge from persecution, others migrated for economic reasons. They can be described as being energetic, resourceful, entrepreneurial and patriotic. They value family, have faith and believe in hard work.
The contributions of the new immigrants have been immense, from protecting our country by serving in the armed forces, Police and emergency services personnel. They have improved our economy through the provision of labor, purchase of homes and countless business startups. They have enriched our culture from the food that we eat, the music we listen to and the arts that we enjoy.
But unlike the immigrants of old, their success is often ignored and stories seldom told. Too often and for far too long, new immigrants have been subjected to irrational, xenophobic propaganda aimed at tarnishing their image and using them as scapegoats for some of society’s major failures.
Embracing our new immigrant population and integrating them into the main stream does not only pay dividends at home, it can also have other positive outcomes. We live in an interdependent world, a world of fierce global competition. The fastest growing economies today are found in South East Asia, Latin America and Africa. Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Yoruba, Somali and Swahili, are world languages of commerce and power. We are fortunate to have children born in Minnesota today who speak these languages at home, whose parents have a profound knowledge and understanding of those regions. It’s advantageous for our government, multinationals and nonprofit actors to harness these gifts. With little effort we can utilize the potential of our immigrant population, and who knows they might one day become our competitive advantage abroad.
Today’s immigrants are not much different to their old counterparts; they are not seeking pity, or handouts. They want to be respected and to be seen as they see themselves, writers of the latest chapter of the continuing wonderful story of America.