On Dec. 28, Army Pvt. Emmanuel Mensah, an immigrant from Ghana, died rescuing neighbors from a burning apartment building in Brooklyn, New York.
Kwabena Mensah said of his late son: “It was in his nature. He wanted to help people out.”
Right now, we’re in the throes of debating how the U.S. should gauge who’s “worthy” to emigrate here. Some Americans who want to curtail the number of low-skilled immigrants are people whose own ancestors couldn’t have cleared such a bar.
Last checked, Emma Lazurus’ poem did not read: “Give me your professors, your surgeons, your Ph.D.s, yearning to get tenure.”
From the White House to the Golden Gate Bridge, it was working-class immigrants of all races and enslaved blacks who literally built this country.
During a recent meeting on immigration, the president disparaged several poor countries and asked why there weren’t more applicants from, oh, say, Norway, which has free college, nearly free health care and an overall better quality of life than the U.S.
Come here for what?
The president’s defenders say it’s about merit, not race or national origin, but he’s never called Slovenia what he called El Salvador and Haiti.
Squirt guns and goulash
If it’s truly about merit, we should be rolling out the red carpet for Nigerians, who are vastly more educated than most native-born Americans. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, 41 percent of immigrants who arrived here between 2010 and 2015 were college graduates, compared to 30 percent of us.
As a child, my neighborhood was filled with immigrants. The Lebanese family who owned and operated our corner store knew us kids by name.
The Italian woman who owned the pizza shop nearby struggled with English, but she knew enough about America to take a chance on it.
There was nothing better than the smell of fresh bread from the Greek-owned bakery on my way to school. A family whose kids couldn’t speak a lick of English when they arrived vaulted to the top in math class because numbers are a universal language.
The kindness shown to us by Mr. and Mrs. Barber, who hailed from Hungary, was not diminished by their broken English. Their trinket store was a treasure trove of firecrackers, yo-yos, fake packs of gum that snapped your fingers and squirt guns, which the teachers confiscated every spring.
None was rich nor highly skilled, as I could see. But by bringing their culture, traditions and faith with them, they infused new blood and new flavors into the neighborhood.
There has never been a time when millions of Americans left this country and all they knew in order to find a better life elsewhere, which tells us immigrants understand something about America that we’ve forgotten.
The immigrants I know have jumped into America with both feet. Who would we be without founding father Alexander Hamilton, architect I.M. Pei or Sergey Brin, a child refugee who grew up to become co-founder of Google?
Immigrants confirm what we know to be true: America, in its most perfect form, isn’t defined by race but by ideals.
New York Times columnist Bret Stephens describes himself as a “holer,” that is a descendant of immigrants and refugees who wouldn’t meet the administration’s standards for desirable newcomers. In a recent column Stephens wrote:
“Are you of Irish descent? Italian? Polish? Scottish? Chinese? Chances are, your ancestors did not get on a boat because life in the old country was placid and prosperous and grandpa owned a bank. With few exceptions, Americans are the dregs of the wine, the chaff of the wheat. If you don’t know this by now, it makes you the wax in the ear.”
Emmanuel Mensah, by the way, wasn’t some celebrity athlete or millionaire banker.
He was simply a soldier who loved his adopted country enough to serve it.
Reach Charita M. Goshay at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.