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Nicholas F. Benton: We Are All Immigrants

Equality and empathy among persons is, I can safety say, probably more at the core of my being than anything else, as no doubt it is for many others, as well. No matter how twisted some of my views may have been at certain points in my life, this one has never been negotiable.

Clearly, the current anti-immigration frenzy is not only a calculated diversion from Iraq, Iran, the energy crisis, the sinking dollar and a myriad of other pressing issues, but its instigators are exploiting nascent racist tendencies to sharpen its angry edge. The lip service might be about illegal immigration, but the sanctioning of “profiling” techniques in Prince William County and elsewhere is evidence of a more insidious underlying reality.

We are all immigrants. I grew up in the company of Hispanics and Jewish folk. My best friend in the fifth grade was the son of a Holocaust survivor, although I didn't appreciate the significance of that until years later. His mom (his father died in a concentration camp) was a large Jewish woman who was delighted that I came over after school and told stories to my friend's younger brother. I also had a friend in the Boy Scouts about that time. His name was Marty. I was the only one in the troop that he took aside to reveal his big secret, that he was Jewish. This was the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in flower. I was saddened that he felt he had to keep this secret. I guess I felt honored that he shared it with me, but it made me sad, though naturally, we remained good friends.

In those days, keeping such secrets was the honorable thing to do. It applied to the Hispanics who were prevalent in my Southern California community, too. If someone was in the U.S. illegally, the idea was to help the cover up. That's because there were many among my Hispanic friends whose families went back generations before mine did on what is now U.S. soil. They had cousins and uncles who would show up from south of the border, and no one ever thought of blowing a whistle on them, or ratting them out to the authorities. We were all struggling to get by, after all. I always liked my Hispanic friends particularly because while they had a little of the macho thing going, right beneath that they were completely loyal and would give you the shirt off their back with no questions asked.

After all, I am the grandson of immigrants, myself. Of the ones I knew best, mine came from Norway, by way of the recruitment of Scandinavians to the U.S. for the construction of the Great Northern Railroad that connected Chicago and Minneapolis to Seattle. This was after the historic Transcontinental Railroad that was built with immigrant Chinese labor, but not by long. The railroad barons looked to Scandinavia because those folks knew how to function in really cold weather. There was a massive campaign to populate Minnesota and the Dakotas, in particular. My relatives came to Valley City, North Dakota, in the 1870s. A group of four brothers and sisters came over from the "old country" over a six year period. The oldest, Olaf, was the head of the transplanted family in the U.S. The youngest sister was my great-grandmother.

Her daughter, my fondly remembered grandmother, was the same age, almost exactly, as the young daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Kathryn Forbes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, "Mama's Bank Account," that became "I Remember Mama" on Broadway, in a 1947 movie and in a TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. That book was about growing up in a Norwegian immigrant family living on the edge of poverty in San Francisco in the early 1900s, exactly when and where my grandmother was, also, as a young girl. This background, I feel, translated into her daughter’s, my mother’s, compassion. To her, people were people, and you respected and cared for them all, regardless. Like the mother in "I Remember Mama," too, my mother always made her children feel loved and secure, even as the family faced a lot of financial hardship that we never learned about until much later.

That's why when the time came, I had no hesitation identifying myself with the civil rights struggles sparked by Martin Luther King and others. I never had to think twice about civil rights issues, not for a moment.

I don't presume that my background on these matters is different than for many others, and that's the point. We are all either immigrants or born into families of immigrants sharing one small, lonely planet. Apparently there are still a lot of people who need to be reminded of that.

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National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: We Are All Immigrants

Equality and empathy among persons is, I can safety say, probably more at the core of my being than anything else, as no doubt it is for many others, as well. No matter how twisted some of my views may have been at certain points in my life, this one has never been negotiable.

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