Viewpoint -- Applaud The Melting Pot

Dec. 21, 2004
In their quiet way, immigrants are nothing short of heroes.

"Welcome, fellow immigrants." That's what Franklin Roosevelt said to a convention of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the 1930s, horrifying those great and grand ladies of the establishment by reminding them the United States is a nation peopled by millions who have sought to find a new life in a new country. We could use a reminder of that now, when Americans are blaming people with exotic names for what happened on Sept. 11. It's too easy at such times to view all foreigners as the enemy. And it takes a real leap for us to understand how brave America's immigrants must be, what they must endure. I got a taste of it recently. As I'm required to do each year, I went to have my passport stamped at the Alien Registration Office. That used to be easy in Ireland, where few people ever used the word "immigrant." Much more common here was the word for people leaving the country. Two years ago, when I arrived in Ireland, it was a relatively simple matter. You'd go in, take a number, wait an hour or so, have a chat with one of the easygoing immigration officers, get your stamp and go. But last year I got to the registration office at 10 a.m. only to find that all the tickets were gone. A harried officer I queried told me they have only a certain number of tickets each day; once they're gone, the office won't process any more aliens that day. So I went back at 8:30 the following morning. Once again, no more tickets. A man sitting on the steps outside clutching one of the precious slips of paper told me he had arrived at 7 a.m. and waited an hour for the office to open. I arrived at 6:30 a.m. the next day, and found at least 75 people already waiting there. I waited, got my ticket, then killed the next five hours, finally getting my passport stamped a little after 1 p.m. This year as the expiration of my passport approached, I was not at all pleased at the prospect of returning to Harcourt Street, but I steeled myself, returning for yet another stamp. I got out of bed at 5:30 a.m., had a hurried shower and a rushed cup of coffee, then zoomed through empty streets to the aliens office. I arrived at 6:10 in the morning to find at least 150 people already waiting. Angrily muttering curses against the so-called "Ireland of the Welcomes," I joined the queue and stood in almost exactly the same spot for nearly two hours. It was cold. It was wet. It was boring. But I didn't hear many people complaining. Oh, I was, of course. With my American sense of entitlement, I was growing angrier and angrier at this treatment. If I had known what lay ahead, I would have been angrier still, because I was not to receive the stamp in my passport until 8:15 p.m. -- more than 14 hours after arriving at the alien office. It was a miserable day. If I hadn't been able to make a few calls on my cell phone and spend a couple of hours at an Internet caf, the day would have been a complete waste. Amazingly, though, almost no one expressed any anger over having to wait so long. Only one or two of the 200 or so people who went through the office that day left with anything other than a smile on their face. The rest just endured the ordeal and greeted its end with relief and, even, joy. That was, in fact, my reaction. After being angry all day, the anger just dissolved. On the way home, I started thinking about what these Latvians and Czechs, these Nigerians and Kenyans, these Chinese and Filipinos who joined me in that office have endured in their lives. I thought about how much they had gone through to try to improve their lot. And I thought about how much poorer America would be -- both culturally and economically -- if wave after wave of immigrants hadn't hit our nation's shores. These people tear themselves from their families, from all they have ever known, to come to a strange place where they can't understand what people are saying. They work hard, the vast majority of them, at menial jobs so they can support people back home as well as themselves. They watch their children grow up knowing nothing of the place where generation after generation had lived, disdaining the mother tongue, becoming these others. My experience taught me yet again how little time I have for people who make nasty remarks about immigrants. It taught me that these people are, in their quiet way, nothing short of heroes for enduring what they endure. And it filled me with pride at the thought that I come from a very nation of immigrants. People just like you. Tom Mudd is IW's European bureau chief. He is based in Dublin.

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