Army doctor: “Chevotarevich, is that a Russian name?”
Nick: “No, it’s an American name.”
-- “The Deer Hunter,” 1978
One of our editors recently spent time in a large Boston hospital, where he had the opportunity to get to know the micro-community of workers—nurses, nurse’s aides, doctors, phlebotomists, housekeepers and so on—on his hospital floor.
They came from far more varied ethnic backgrounds than you would find in Sandwich, or on the Upper Cape in general.
What was especially striking was how many of them are immigrants.
Their accents were a dead giveaway. You could tell that they had not been born and raised in Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.
Being an inquiring sort of fellow, the editor would engage them in conversation. Along with the weather and how their workday was going, he would work in the same basic questions: Where were they born? Why had they come to the United States? Green card or citizen?
They were born, it turns out, in countries including Haiti, the United Kingdom, the Dominican Republic, Somalia, the Czech Republic, Jamaica, Germany, Guinea and Albania.
Usually they had come to the United States following a family member, such as a husband or a fiancé. And they were all citizens.
For most of them, and their families that had immigrated here with them, the magnet was the same one it had been for most American immigrants: economic opportunity. They had voted with their feet to leave the land of their ancestors for America.
For the first-generation immigrants working on the hospital floor, their pre-American world still loomed large in their lives. The Haitians would speak creole to each other in little conversational clusters; the Dominican housekeepers would converse in Spanish as they moved from room to room.
A number of the immigrants still were in their 20s, but others were older, and had been in the United States for a couple of decades. Their own children were attending or had graduated from college in this country.
The editor was getting a preview of the America to come.
At present, the birthrate of native-born Americans is not enough to maintain the nation’s population, let alone increase it. Population decline equals economic decline—anathema to Americans.
The United States needs immigrants—if only to keep up its economy.
Still, the America that the editor got to know in a glancing way on the floor of the Boston hospital looks and sounds a lot different from part of America he grew up in—or even the Cape Cod he moved to three decades ago.
It’s no secret that a lot of native-born Americans find the influx of immigrants, many of whom are not “white” and whose native tongue is not English, to be unsettling. It’s a major reason why Donald Trump, with his call for a wall along the southern border, was elected president in 2016.
And it wouldn’t be the first time that native-born Americans felt this way.
In truth, the United States has a history dating from its very founding of unease with and resistance to people coming in from other lands.
Irish Catholics, who spoke English and whose skin was as white as any white American, were depicted in the mid-19th century as monkeys in cartoons in the popular press. The darker-skinned immigrants who flooded into the country from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were viewed with alarm. The Chinese who came to California in the 1860s to build the western section of the transcontinental railroad through the Sierras—and routinely died while doing so—were unwelcome once that job was done.
Yet we are all immigrants to what is now the United States—not only the Pilgrims, whose arrival off Provincetown occurred nearly 400 years ago, but the Wampanoags and their fellow native peoples, whose ancestors crossed the Bering land bridge millennia ago.
In fact, immigrants are America’s secret weapon. They bring intelligence, talent and drive to the United States. With the opportunities this nation offers, they can flourish as much as the native-born population.
Further, in contrast to what nativists believe, living in America exerts its own powerful cultural pull on immigrants, and certainly on their children, who grow up here and may have no memory of the land from which their parents emigrated.
Last Friday, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, appeared on television screens throughout the Boston hospital. She was testifying in a House impeachment hearing on President Trump.
Ms. Yovanovitch’s parents fled the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. She was born in Canada, came with her parents to the United States at age 3, and became a naturalized citizen at the age of 18.
She has served with distinction in the State Department and in the Foreign Service for 33 years, including in hardship posts where she has been in harm’s way.
Last Friday, she was a model of intelligence and control, including while being subjected to a nasty presidential tweet in the middle of her testimony. Spontaneous applause broke out at the conclusion of her appearance.
On that day, millions of US citizens were proud that she was an American. And in light of her life, maybe our immigrant-filled future need not look so worrisome after all.