When Thinking of America First You Must First Define America

Easter 2013

What is it that makes America the nation that so many want to live in unlike nations such as Russia, China, or Turkey? What is it that it offers that attracts so many people to its shores?

I suggest it is one word: opportunity. The opportunity to be whatever you want to be and to be protected in that right. The opportunity to have something for yourselves or your children that you would not otherwise have. The opportunity as Boston Municipal Court Judge Elijah Adlow put it: “to have peace, quiet and the right to enjoy life.”

Thomas Gray spoke about those who lived and died in the English countryside. He wrote:

“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid –  Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; – Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d, – Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page –  Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll; – Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage, –   And froze the genial current of the soul.”  

America  by accepting ” tired, . . .poor, . . .  huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is offering them an opportunity to escape the “chill penury” and by doing so it gains innumerable benefits – great scholars, engineers and scientists (“Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d)  or folks brilliant in the arts (wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.)

I think of this today having read about Özlem Türeci  a woman born of  Turkish parents who lived in Germany and who wanted to become a nun before she decided to study medicine and her husband Uğur Şahin who was born on September 29, 1965 in İskenderun, in the Hatay province, Turkey.

He left Turkey for Germany at age 4 with his mother to join his father who had found employment in a German automobile factory, ” He enjoyed playing soccer and “was interested in popular science books, which he borrowed from the Catholic church library.”

Many folk from Turkey  moved to Germany because Germans needed workers and jobs in Turkey were scarce. Most intended to moves to be temporary and planned to return home after earning money.  As time passed they would seek to stay in Germany even in the face of  expressions of xenophobia and ethnic violence.

Germany like America gave people the opportunity to do more than they could in their homeland. As for Özlem Türeci  and Uğur Şahin they are the founders of the company BioNTech which is responsible for developing the vaccine used by Pfizer against Covid-19. They expect they will be able to use similar treatments against cancer. Rather than having their ideas and promise chilled by lack of opportunity, Germany opened the door for them.

That too has been the story of America. Folks from all parts of the world have brought their skills and ideas here which have advanced our nation. I recently read that more than half of our Nobel prize winners who are here because they, their parents or grandparents migrated here.

If we are to continue to advance we cannot shut our doors to others as we tried to do in the 1920s. We now hear echoes of Congressman Albert Johnson who said in 1924: “Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood.” Those with the “alien blood” then were the Eastern and Southern Europeans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia and Italy who were seen as non-White.

Recently the America First slogan has come to the fore. Those pushing it define America as the land of the white Christian and Deist Americans who founded the nation. America actually is  the polyglot land of many races, religions and languages. We cannot go backwards. We must recognize we are made up of people from all over the world. If we want to keep America first we must continue to welcome the ” tired, . . .poor, . . .  huddled masses yearning to breathe free”