Richard Reeves

A Nation of Immigrants, Yes!

LOS ANGELES -- Scene I: When David Halberstam, possibly the best journalist of his generation, was assigned to Poland by The New York Times, he ended up marrying a beautiful Polish actress named Elzbieta Czyzewska. And as you can guess, American politicians with large numbers of Poles in their districts flocked to Warsaw to meet the great Halberstam and his glamorous wife.

Scene II: After one long dinner with American congressmen, she asked David whether all American leaders spoke like peasants. The answer was "Yes," because almost all Polish-Americans and their families came from the lower classes of middle Europe.

Scene III: I grew up in Jersey City, N.J., thinking that the United States was an Italian country governed by the Irish. The first Italian to win the mayoralty, Thomas Gangemi, took office in 1961. He was invited to Rome to receive medals from both the government of Italy and the pope himself. Unfortunately, he could not get a passport. He was an illegal alien and was forced to resign.

Scene IV: My wife and I took her mother, Bridget Ruddy, a native of Ireland, out to Ellis Island after it was renovated in the 1980s. I I asked her if it looked different from the first time she was there. "I don't know," she said. "I've never been here before. When the boats came from Europe, the English-speakers took their physical exams onboard; only the 'shawl people' -- Eastern Europeans -- came here. We left the ships at the docks on the Upper West Side."

Scene V: Travel through the buildings of Silicon Valley; it's "dormitory lite." There are two smells -- dirty socks, which means Americans who probably spent time at Stanford, Harvard or MIT, or curry, which means Indians or other South Asians.

I have always thought that the real story of the United States was the title of a book written by Oscar Handlin of Harvard University in 1951: "The Uprooted -- The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People."

I am as proud as any American to boast of and be inspired by the work of the Founding Fathers, by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Great men who did great things and were ever in great danger. They created a great country. But it was immigrants, all the rest of us, who made a great nation.

The great myth that the Founding Fathers were right about all things is propagated by groupings such as the tea party and Antonin Scalia. They are mainly old white people who see the country they grew up in being morphed into quite a different kind of place and know that they are no longer particularly useful outside their own families. Sad, yes. But that's the way it is. They no longer have the energy or the skills to run this massive machine they built. We, as we always have, need immigrants to do that. Or are we to become shriveled old people, yearning for the good old days?

This was the week that the Pew Research Center released data indicating that Asians are now the largest group of new immigrants in the United States, displacing Latinos. We're very lucky; we need both of those groups. We need them to stay young -- and hungry. Welcoming them, using them, learning from them is what makes us a true superpower. I teach at a university, the University of Southern California, which has the highest percentage of foreign students of any school in the country. If the Asians and Asian-Americans suddenly left the campus, we might be a cow college, particularly in the sciences and engineering.

Also, on a less-important note, even in recession, Californians are the only middle-class Americans with servants -- gardeners, nannies, cooks, cleaners -- mostly Latino, but those Latinos' kids are in community colleges and big-name universities. They will have an important role in making the new America. Our president will take a hit for helping them stay in the United States, but he is right. We need them.

It's win-win. Immigrants get a chance. And so do we, the old white majority that was America.

More like Richard Reeves