The Good Place


Immigration has been in the news, and the questions of how to deal with illegal immigrants and how to guard our borders are an important and complicated ones. I will not deal with them here. What worries me is that so much of the language surrounding the debate is so full of resentment, fear, and racism that I wonder whether some Americans have forgotten-or if they ever knew-how ugly a part of our history this anti-immigrant feeling has been, and apparently still is.

I live in Queens, the most ethnically diverse part of New York City, which is to say the most ethnically diverse part of the planet. My own neighborhood is largely Korean, with plenty of Chinese, Greeks, Hispanics, African Americans, and South Asians. I moved to Queens to be pastor of a parish in the Albanian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America. I am Irish American; my wife was born in the Philippines. Our parishioners were at first mainly second-generation Albanians. The fall of communism brought in a wave of Albanians, doubling the size of our congregation. Among our other parishioners there were a few Greeks and Russians who liked the English liturgy, some Coptic Egyptians, Eritreans, and some converts from a range of backgrounds.

When I talked with the newly arrived Albanians I was reminded of my own great-grandparents who came here from Ireland, and of my wife’s journey. Communism had ruined Albania, and, as much as they loved their country, the new parishioners saw no future there. They worried that the combination of high unemployment, rampant smuggling, and pervasive corruption would blight the lives of their children. They saw hope in America. The Albanian woman who worked as our church secretary was especially upset by September 11. “I thought America was the safe place,” she said.

Nothing can make you more patriotic, in a nonpartisan, nonjingoistic way, than growing close to people who have come here not only for personal gain but because they thought of America as “the safe place.” More than that, they see it as the good place, the place where a really decent life is possible for you, without your having to bribe someone, or without your having to be born with the right connections. One couple, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, know that she could not get the good treatment she gets here if they were forced to leave, but would face the prejudice the handicapped face in many countries. The same is true of another couple, whose child has Down syndrome. I have seen the typical, even stereotypical story played out again and again-the professionals whose credentials don’t work here, who take menial jobs for the sake of their children, who then go on to get PhDs or become doctors.

Their patriotism impresses me. They are critical of some American realities, particularly our health-care system, or lack of one, and they can be scathing about the shallowness of our politicians. Yet, they love this place, and during the ten years I served the parish I came to see why.

Many of them face immigration problems. Some are here illegally. Some were legal for a while, but their visas expired. Some were waiting for word on their green-card applications. But all were extremely grateful to be here.

A combination of desperation, hope, and gratitude fills the lives of many immigrants. They are met with resentment and fear by too many Americans. This can have a comic side. One woman in my parish-apparently forgetting that my wife is a Filipina-told me that the Asians were running Queens, and she didn’t like it. “They’ve taken over everything,” she said. “I know,” I said. “It’s so bad that when I woke up this morning I rolled over, and there was one of them!”

But I see in this anger at foreigners the same know-nothing sensibility that made the arrival of Irish, Jews, and Italians so difficult in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The idea that we must be primarily a white, English-speaking Protestant nation dies hard. English has been an especially sore point in recent years.

We’ve been here before, but seem to have forgotten. In my home town of Springfield, Illinois, there was more than one German-language newspaper during the nineteenth century. I have no doubt that English will continue to be America’s first language, but it was never America’s only language. It will survive any number of ethnic newspapers and TV stations. The Korean news dealer a block from my apartment carries newspapers in Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. What should impress the xenophobes among us, but probably will not, is that every customer-except for a few of his countrymen from Korea-converses with the owner in English.

Published in the 2007-08-17 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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