Recently, President Trump announced an “immigration plan” – actually, just a set of talking points, without enough detail to be called a real plan. While it was quickly proclaimed “dead on arrival” in Congress, it tells us a lot about the administration’s priorities and the path it will pursue on immigration. My family – and lots of other people from similarly humble backgrounds – would not be here if the president’s proposal had been in effect when they arrived.
My grandfather, Saul Mirken, arrived from Russia in the 1890s as a child, apparently welcomed by one or two other relatives already here, looking for a better life at a time when persecution of Jews was widespread in Russia. He arrived in New York without advanced degrees or much knowledge of English, but with a ferocious work ethic.
Saul started his own business, the Saul Mirken Paint Co., which acquired such a good reputation that after he sold the store and retired, the new owners kept his name on it for decades. He put his kids through college. My dad went to Cornell and then Harvard Medical School. He fought in World War II, serving as an army physician in the Pacific, where at one point the ship he was on was torpedoed. One of his sisters became a respected writer and editor and the other an economics professor.
These are the sorts of people the Trump immigration plan is designed to protect us from.
(Astute readers will likely have noticed that I and my family are white, unlike most immigrants being demonized today. I’ve written before about how I benefitted from white privilege, but — odd as it seems to us now — Russians, Poles, Italians and other eastern and southern Europeans were not considered white when my grandfather arrived. That belief eventually led to eugenics-based immigration restrictions in the 1920s. At the time Saul arrived, the U.S.’s only major ethnic immigration restriction barred entry by Chinese people – who, of course, have more recently been touted as the “model minority.” Prejudices change, but the stupidity of prejudice remains.)
While the White House immigration plan wouldn’t have absolutely barred my family from coming here, it would have made their path much more difficult and probably impossible. Under the Trump immigration plan, uniting families gets much less emphasis while enhanced pathways would be created for those with “extraordinary talent, professional and specialized vocations” and “exceptional academic track records.” Priority will also go to “higher wage workers.” In addition, “Those seeking entry would also have to demonstrate English language fluency and pass a civics test.” My family would have flunked on pretty much all counts.
America’s story, of course, is full of immigrants who came here with nothing (including no “professional and specialized vocations” or “exceptional academic track records”) and spoke little or no English, but went on to do extraordinary things. A short list might include “White Christmas” songwriter Irving Berlin and Zumba creator Beto Perez – a Colombian fitness instructor who arrived in the U.S. speaking little English and has now become one of the planet’s most successful entrepreneurs. It also would include millions more who never became famous but who came to this country, worked hard, overcame racism and other forms of bigotry, built a good life for themselves and their families, and contributed to their communities.
Our current government couldn’t care less.
The Trump immigration plan firmly and finally jettisons “Give us your tired, your poor” in favor of “Give us your people from privileged backgrounds who already have advanced degrees and that tech companies want to hire.” It will make us spiritually poorer and morally smaller.
Bruce Mirken is Greenlining’s Media Relations Director. Follow him on Twitter.