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Thursday, July 01, 2004

Houston Community Newspapers The dream lives; the American dream, that is

Houston Community Newspapers Online

The dream lives; the American dream, that is.

Last week, I invited readers to send me their inspiring stories of great-grandparents or relatives who risked all to immigrate to America and pursue their dreams in this land of opportunity.
The legal immigrants bring more than simply human lives when they step off the boat or plane -- they bring their own hopes for opportunity that supply an energy and vitality that can enrich a community. We see some of the same energy today in the 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants in this country. But illegal immigration also brings with it numerous social problems.
But if we could expand the avenues of legal immigration, while at the same time cracking down on the illegal variety, we could gain control of the problem.
For those of us whose family trees are more firmly rooted in American soil, it's hard sometimes to understand how deeply the American dream resonated with our forefathers who fled deprivation or persecution in other lands.
The right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" drew them like a magnet, and it caused them to think lightly of the challenges and obstacles they met along the way -- challenges that would defeat all too many of us third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Americans.
One reader, a junior at The Woodlands High School, sent me a copy of a speech she had delivered a few days before to the Houston World Affairs Council. Lara Hwa traced her family tree back across the ocean to China, and also to Plymouth, Mass.
I was especially impressed by the story of Lara's paternal grandmother:
"As a first-generation Chinese American, she straddled the cultures of her parents and of America. Her parents immigrated to America searching for a better life. Without money, without much education, and without English skills, they settled in Chicago's Chinatown.
"Through sheer hard work and determination, my great-grandfather successfully established his own canning business -- putting Chinese food in cans and selling them to an ever-eager American market. My paternal grandparents met at the University of Illinois and settled in Connecticut, where they both still live today. Their son, my dad, grew up in Connecticut and is as American as apple pie."
There it is. From inauspicious beginnings -- a couple with no English skills and no money in the middle of Chinatown -- comes a young lady who can speak eloquently of her ancestors before an audience of strangers at a meeting in downtown Houston.
Dr. Steven Farber, a local cardiologist, told me one branch of his family tree got its start in this country pushing banana carts down the streets of Stephenville. His ancestors were Jewish immigrants, some who left Russia to escape the religious persecution of the czar, others who escaped Europe before it was engulfed by Hitler's armies.
"America just meant so much to them," Farber said. "We need to not close our doors to people who want to come here to find a better life for their families and themselves."
Farber feels a sense of pride that he is the first doctor to be produced by his immigrant family.
"I really feel very strong about legal immigration. People have come here really in search of something better for themselves and families. They all had miserable experiences in Russia -- abject poverty, religious persecution -- and I did lose some family in concentration camps who didn't come over her.
"I'm lucky the ones I'm descended from came over here -- or I'd have never been born."
Reader Brent Veazey of Conroe perhaps expressed it best, referring to Ronald Reagan's imagery of a "shining city on a hill."
"We are a nation of immigrants, both legal and illegal, searching for that better freedom and opportunity our ideals promise. The question we must now ask is how best to protect our city. Do we protect it by squeezing the flow of its lifeblood, the immigrant who steadfastly believes the ideals serving as its foundation, to a small trickle that seemingly violates the founding premise of freedom and opportunity for all? How many of us would be here now if our ancestors were forced to follow the laws of today?"
Millions of people around the world -- and across the Rio Grande -- want to make it to this shining city on a hill. How wide should we open the doors so they can come without breaking the law?
***
Next week: The prude is back. I'll tackle Janet Jackson and "the breast seen 'round the world." Let me know what you thought of that goofy halftime show.

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