United States Remains a Magnet for Immigrants

The United States continues to be a magnet for immigrants, and those newcomers contribute mightily to American life just as earlier generations did, says journalist and educator Steve Roberts.

Roberts, a former New York Times reporter and now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, described age-old consistencies in the immigration experience — but also some modern twists — in a talk at the National Archives in Washington April 22.

He laced his talk with anecdotes from his new book, From Every End of This Earth: 13 Families and the New Lives They Made in America, which presents the stories of recent immigrants from 17 countries. (Some family members came from different countries.)

Ranging from entrepreneurs and students to survivors of war, these immigrants traveled to the United States from Afghanistan, Burma, China, Greece, El Salvador, Egypt, Germany, India, Israel, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Syria, Ukraine and Vietnam.

The book’s title was adopted from President Obama’s inaugural address, in which he declared that American society has been “shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth,” and that its citizens recognize that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”

Roberts joked about his immigrant forebears and the much earlier ones of his wife, radio and television news commentator Cokie Roberts, who served as moderator for his talk. “Both of us are children of immigrants; it just happens our families came 300 years apart,” he said. “Cokie’s family came to Jamestown [with the original British settlers of Virginia] in 1620 … and I’m the child of the Rogowskys of Bialystok” in Poland.

“Immigration is alive and well today, 100 years after my grandparents arrived,” Roberts said, but while earlier waves of immigration originated in Europe, people now come from other parts of the globe.

In his home town of Bayonne, New Jersey, Roberts reported, “the Italian church has masses in Spanish. The old bus station is a Coptic Christian church. All the stores on Broadway that used to be owned by Jews are now owned by Indians.” Indeed, he said, “the winner of the annual award for an essay about the Holocaust, given by the Jewish community, is a Muslim woman from Pakistan.”

Roberts’ book describes a wide range of immigration experiences, from the young man from India who simply boarded a plane in New Delhi on his way to graduate school in Ohio, to the family that escaped a brutal civil war in Sierra Leone and ended up in Pennsylvania. “We’re a haven for political refugees, who are fighting through terribly dangerous times,” Roberts said.

He told of a young woman from Burma who immigrated with her family and, upon entering college, identified with fellow Muslim students and began wearing a hijab (traditional headscarf). “How can you do this? You’re in America!” the girl’s father demanded. “I can do it, Daddy, because I’m in America,” she replied.

“It’s a wonderful story,” Roberts said, “because the point here is choice. … America allows you to become who you want to be, even if it’s more devout, even if it’s putting on hijab.”

He recounted the story of Pablo Romero, born in rural Mexico, a school dropout at age 11, who worked in lettuce fields after coming to California at age 13. Drafted into the Army at 20, Romero devoured every book in the post library, ultimately attending community college at night, then the University of California, then medical school.

Romero now runs a neighborhood medical clinic in Salinas, California, “taking care of the children and grandchildren of the people he worked next to in the fields,” Roberts said. “I do not know a better American than Pablo Romero.”

One recent change, Roberts said, is that communication technology now allows immigrants to keep in touch with friends and family in the home country. There has also been a decline in “traditions that hampered women from emigrating alone,” and a shift to a service economy that has created more opportunities — particularly for women — in fields such as health care.

A common thread in the U.S. immigration picture is “an elasticity to our [self-] definition,” Roberts said. “Anyone from anywhere can define himself as an American in a way that’s not true anywhere else in the world.” And America continues to improve because immigrants bring “new energy, new blood and new entrepreneurial spirit.”

Still, he acknowledged that “as much as we celebrate the glory of our immigrant history, America has always been ambivalent,” passing through periods of “very virulent anti-immigrant feeling.”

Opponents “almost always use the same language, whether it’s against the Irish in the 1840s, the Italians in the 1920s … or the Hispanics today, and that language is, ‘American is now perfect and we have to pull up the drawbridge because the next group will corrupt our culture,’” Roberts said.

But, he insisted, “That’s a profound misreading of American history — because the genius of America is that we’re never finished.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

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