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From Long Island Wins: April 19, 2013

Older Than You Think

I’ll spare you the family photos of the Eiffel Tower and the parking lot where King Richard 111 was buried, but I’m just back from a family trip to France and England.

There’s nothing like going abroad to pick up a new appreciation for a great American habit of mind: we are people of the present. Americans tend to believe that we can and should remake the world anew in our own image, and that all solutions come from bringing the freshest possible thinking to today’s challenges.

Fresh thinking is a great thing, sure. But for a reminder of what the past has to offer us, I urge you to take a spin through one of the most popular series at LongIslandWins.com, Pat Young’s take on the “Immigrants’ Civil War.”

Pat’s blog series has been a rich and colorful reminder that so many of the debates of the moment on Long Island and in Washington aren’t just of the moment – we’ve actually been asking and answering questions about immigrants and how they fit into our society for well over a century.

The wave of immigrants who came to America in the 1800’s did so for the same reason that immigrants come to Long Island from around the world now — to work hard and provide for their families.

And like today’s immigrants, they provoked a backlash from politicians who looked to exploit divisions between new and native-born Americans, with “Know Nothing” politicians — that was their official name then — urging anti-immigrant policies.

The outbreak of Civil War disrupted this debate.  Immigrants rushed into the ranks of the new army every bit as fast as the native-born in the weeks after Fort Sumter was attacked. Many immigrants who just weeks before had faced discrimination volunteered to risk their lives to preserve their adopted nation.

One Irish immigrant, shortly before being killed in battle, defended his call to service in a letter to his wife, “This is my country as much as the man that was born on the soil and so it is to every man who comes to this country and becomes a citizen.”

It’s not hard to hear echoes of that today.  One of the very first Americans to die in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, was an undocumented immigrant, an orphan in America illegally from Guatemala.  He wasn’t alone: by 2009, more than 100,000 members of our armed forces were foreign-born, 12% of whom were not U.S. citizens.

Fact is, Long Island’s immigrants, then and now, are making the same kind of sacrifices as native-born Long Islanders. They’re renewing the American Dream with the same kind of fervor. And it shouldn’t take a Civil War for us to recognize that we’re all better off when we tap into the contributions they have to offer, rather than leaving them in the shadows.

Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is Executive Director at Long Island Wins.