I am a child of immigrants.
Of course, that should be obvious to anyone who has seen my pale skin and pointed nose. My face is strong evidence that I cannot make any “native” claims to America. Thanks to my grandfather’s careful reconstruction of fifteen generations of family history, however, I know much more than the simple fact that my ancestors immigrated to these shores. I know names, and dates, and countries of origin.
On my father’s side my family immigrated from Germany ten generations back. My eight-times-great-grandfather, Johann Peter Gutin, arrived in Philadelphia in 1752 with a young son but without his wife, who had died making the journey. Lucky for me he remarried and had more children, including my many-times-great uncle who was a master trumpeter with Washington’s Guard at Valley Forge. His brother, my ninth generation grandfather (Henry Gideon) also served in Washington’s army, and when he passed away at the ripe age of 101 he was laid out in state in the New York City Hall as a fitting honor for one of the last survivors of the Revolutionary War.
On my mother’s side of the family I have to go back a bit further – a total of twelve generations to be exact – when Thomas Hollingsworth crossed over from Ireland and married a New Jersey girl named Margaret in 1683. Incidentally, this side of the family also boasts a Revolutionary War soldier, John Benson from the Sixth Duchess County Militia. If I wanted to, I could apply for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) with documentation supporting my claim from both sides of my family.
But the thing is, I don’t want to join the DAR.
This reluctance does not reflect any antipathy toward my ancestry. I am proud of my family. They have been hard-working people who have contributed to this country in countless ways. They have been engineers and farmers, pastors and furniture makers, soldiers and sailors, and teachers – many, many teachers.
They have also been people who fought for justice for the oppressed. The story from my family history of which I am most proud is my Grandfather’s recounting of the birth of his grandfather in Indiana. The story is powerful because the new father left his wife and newborn twin sons only hours after their birth, because he understood that his responsibility for care extended beyond his own family. His house was a stop on the underground railroad, and when two new passengers arrived unexpectedly he left his little family and drove 40 miles is sub-zero temperatures to get these two unknown women a little closer to the safety of Canada.
Perhaps it is in part genetics that has convinced me of the absolute imperative to love my neighbor – even a neighbor that looks very different from me. I am certain it is also the heritage of deep faith, that teaches me to show special concern for the powerless, the orphan, the alien. And these convictions are the reason I have no interest in joining a women’s organization whose eligibility is restricted exclusively to those who can trace their ancestry back to the Revolutionary War. There is nothing wrong with pride in ancestry, but I find that this kind of focus too often results in drawing lines. The kinds of lines that let some people in and keep others out. I don’t like those kinds of lines.
Of course – those lines are the focus of national attention at the moment. Child immigrants are flooding our border and lots of people are making emphatic points about lines – lines decorated with signs and screaming faces; lines that keep people out; lines they don’t want crossed.
I understand that the political situation is extremely complicated, and that there is a logistical and humanitarian crisis that is not easily addressed. My little family history offers no solutions to the question of what to do with tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, and it certainly offers no remedy to the catastrophic violence that is driving them to make the dangerous and expensive journey to America.
I offer this story, though, because I do think it is relevant to the national discussion. My history is a classic American story, and it reveals what has made America great. At its best, this has been a place that welcomed new immigrants with a chance to make themselves a life and then give back. What has made Americans great is that very willingness to give back, especially on behalf of the oppressed and helpless, even when that giving costs something. Sometimes that cost is the financial burden for care of thousands of vulnerable children. Sometimes it is the precious hours of the first day of your own child’s life.
I don’t have solutions, but I have this story. And I have this reminder for my neighbors waving signs on the border – you are a child of immigrants too. Just like me.