Column: America denies certain immigrants its blessing

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 30, 2007

By Mary Leager-Hagemeister, Paths to Peace

Although the following column was individually authored by me, Mary Lager-Hagemeister, it also serves as an official position statement by Paths to Peace in Freeborn County regarding the treatment of immigrants.

&8220;Only people with short memories forget their migrations.&8221; &8212; Joseph Amato

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&8220;Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.&8221; &8212;George Santayana

As members of Paths to Peace in Freeborn County, we are reminded that our mission statement calls us to promote peaceful living among people of all ages in Freeborn County, and our guiding principle commits us to providing resources and support for developing peace in individual and community life. We also recognize that we have all been warmed by fires we did not build and have eaten food that our hands have not prepared.

Too often we hear disparaging remarks about immigrants who live among us or who are neighbors at a distance. Too often we forget our own immigrant stories and the history of immigration in this country. Too often we forgot how race has played a role in how people are included or excluded in communities or who is allowed to come as an immigrant. Too often we fail to recognize that we may be repeating a pattern of treating the &8220;other&8221; unfairly. For those of us who have generations who have come before us as immigrants in this country it&8217;s good to be reminded on whose back we have benefited and to make efforts to not repeat mistreatment.

For example, did you remember that in 1830, the U.S. Indian Removal Act drove five American Indian nations from their ancestral homes in an effort to make room for European immigrant expansion? Those of us who have ancestors who came after 1862 as a result of the Morrill Act and the federal Homestead Act were able to establish citizenship and benefit by the government making free farmland available to new immigrant farmers and pioneers who were willing to come to the &8220;wilderness.&8221; However, in order to do that, the American Indians had to be removed from that &8220;wilderness&8221; and put on reservations.

Did you remember that in 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed with the aid of many Chinese workers? This completion allowed Western farmers to deliver this products to Eastern markets.

However, shortly after that in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which made the very people who had helped complete the railroad &8220;illegal&8221; to be here. And the irony is that because of this act, a federal district court judge tried to deny citizenship to a Finnish immigrant in Duluth.

At the time the pseudo-scientific notion of race categorized Finno-Urgic peoples are Asian by labeling and designating certain linguistic and physical characteristics of this group as Mongoloid.

(See, the fact was, we as a nation weren&8217;t denying immigrants, we were denying certain immigrants.)

Or the fact that the official election instructions in Minnesota were issued in nine languages: English, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, French, Czech, Italian and Polish from 1850 to 1905. That was because the people weren&8217;t literate in English, yet they wanted to participate at citizens in the democracy of the country.

Paths to Peace also recognizes that in order to build a healthy and peaceful community we each must take steps to learn about our own immigration history, race history in this country and then to be deliberate in taking the time to get to know the stories of why people are coming to this country from other parts of the world. Very often it&8217;s for the very same reasons immigrants began coming hundreds of years ago-for a better life and for democracy.

And, just as many people continue to celebrate their cultural heritage with being part of the Sons of Norway, or eating lutefisk, or participating in Irish festivals, or singing Danish or German carols, so too will new immigrants celebrate their cultural heritage, adding to the tapestry of this country.

As a committee, we strongly encourage each of you to take the time to recognize how you have been warmed by fires you didn&8217;t build, how you have been fed by food not prepared by your own hands, and how you can help to build a more peaceful, safe, inviting community for those who have also come here to make a better life.

Mary Laeger-Hagemeister is a Regional Extension educator with the University of Minnesota Extension in the area of leadership and civic engagement.