We Are All Immigrants
I am an immigrant. What does it mean? And, more importantly in this political climate, to whom, neighbors, colleagues, or the INS? After forty years of being legally in the US (35 as citizen), I’m still struggling to explain to myself what this means.
There are refugees or forced immigrants, and there are voluntary immigrants. Forced immigration can be political or economic, can be domestic or international.
The Census Bureau reports that the average American moves about 12 times in a lifetime, some for jobs, others for marriage or family, and still others for retirement (Colorado Springs has its fair share of retirees).
Witness the array of bars and restaurants in town and you’ll quickly perceive the appeal of Springs Orleans for those who moved from the south and are looking for comfort dishes reminiscent of “home cooking” all the way to Edelweiss with its distinctive old-world German cuisine.
Are Korean or German spouses of military personnel involuntary refugees or voluntary immigrants who chose to marry their loved ones and believed a better future awaits them here? Each case unfolds its own narrative, its own web of circumstances.
My parents were refugees, escaping Germany in the late 1930s to survive the inevitable Nazi onslaught. They chose to leave at a particular moment (and thus escaped the concentration camps), but their “choice” was obviously involuntary.
When I think of my own immigration, a voluntary one from the comfort of my bourgeois home, it looks laughable compared to the ordeals my parents had to endure on their way to the British mandate in Palestine. I could have gone back; they had no such luxury.
My own process of assimilation took some years, experiencing anti-Semitism for the first time in my life. Perhaps what saved me was my (compulsory) service in the IDF (as every young man and woman have to serve in the military), so I was given some respect when encountering quizzical locals in Colorado who respect the military.
I recall the day when I stood with my attorney and two neighbors, one a veterinarian, the other a balding gas-distribution owner and scion to a legendary local family, to discuss our development plans for the Warehouse complex. Three Caucasian males with their attorneys, looking at a century-old decaying building I just bought with my sister and brother-in-law.
The two neighbors insisted that I had no right to develop the building, that it would adversely affect them, and that they would use the arm of the law to block us. I thought it would be a friendly exchange in which we would explain our vision.
At some point, the elderly bald man turned to me and said: we don’t need newcomers like you here! Why don’t you go back to where you came from!
I turned to my attorney and asked whether I should punch him or respond. He kindly deflected the tension and begged me to remain calm. I was young, the two neighbors were old. Really, I asked him, just remain quiet? I did remain quiet.
I had to come up before City Council for approval, since my neighbors appealed every zoning and building permit we manage to acquire, legally, mind you. The mayor was magnanimous and Council members supportive, thankfully.
Now, some twenty years later, an abandoned building is paying a hefty annual real-estate tax bill, business tenants are employing dozens of young people and paying sales taxes, and in general, what used to be drug and prostitution area has been cleaned up. The police thanked me at the time!
I’m still an immigrant, perhaps a more successful one than when I accepted a tenure-track position at UCCS in 1996. That position, too, was risky at the time, with less than 3,000 students in a commuter campus.
Times have changed. The Warehouse is a downtown institution. My involvement with Smokebrush, Kimball’s movie theater, my dear partner Perry Sanders in the Mining Exchange complex, and a couple of other restaurants in town have all been downtown contributions. The city has grown as well.
UCCS is a local powerhouse with more than 12,000 students and more buildings than I ever imagined. The reputation of the university extends internationally, far beyond the impact it has on the local economy. All the faculty moved into town from elsewhere.
Do we want to stop growth? This was the sentiment of one of the guys who hired me: too much traffic, he complained (with 150,000 population). Don’t you want the energy and diversity that all newcomers bring to our lives, whether they come from Chicago or Syria?
Next time you have a hatred-like itch, don’t scratch. Stop and think: are you Native American? If not, you are an immigrant, too!
Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at email@example.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com