The story goes like this:
My grandfather asked my grandmother on a date, and treated her to a 2 cent seltzer, and bought himself the 5 cent size. They had met at a sweatshop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after arriving in New York harbor as teenagers fleeing religious persecution in Eastern Europe. Rose, my grandmother, always audacious, threw pins at my grandfather, Abraham, to catch his attention. They spoke Yiddish and whatever money they had they earned working long hours.
Their union produced three children, 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and to date, 11 great-great-grandchildren.
Their story- circa 1915- isn’t unlike many refugees today. Whether legal or illegal, people see the United States as a land of hope. Emma Lazarus’ “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” speaks as strongly today as it did when first written in 1883.
The independent documentary wastes no time depicting our nation’s inherent xenophobia and the subsequent prejudice it produces. Where sixty years ago, blacks and whites couldn’t sit together at a lunch counter, now citizens- white, African-American, and Hispanic, are banding together against the town’s most recent wave of immigrants- Somali Muslims, who have escaped a war-torn regime. We meet a young woman who is working at the Tyson factory, cleaning chickens on an assembly line. She’s on her feet the entire day, plucking hundreds of birds from dangerous machinery, and makes a minimal hourly wage. Yet she’s hopeful that she’ll be able to save and create a better life. And despite violent attacks on her house and car and verbal attacks telling her to “go home,” she can’t return to Somalia.
The real hero of the film, due to air on local PBS stations this May, is Miss Luci, an ESL teacher of Hispanic descent, who teaches the immigrants English. She organizes dinners involving residents from all cultures in efforts to dispel the suspicion and fear of the Somalis. The film features a Mexican family- a couple that had raised six children in the US. The father works on the assembly line at General Motors, and in 2008, registered to vote for the first time in his life. The film shows the family watching the inauguration of President Obama on television. When the national anthem is played, they stand, tears running down their faces, and promise their young son a trip to Washington, DC.
Like my grandparents, this family worked hard, learned English, and gave their children opportunities.
The rampant distrust of immigrants disturbs me. I certainly appreciate the variety of ethnic restaurants and foods available in most supermarkets. Those against immigration can’t deny that immigrants are doing jobs many don’t want to do: cleaning homes and offices, mowing lawns, manicuring nails,washing dishes in restaurants, and making beds in hotels. Whether legal or illegal, they are seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Let’s not shut the door.