Donald Trump wants to know why we have to take immigrants from “shithole" countries, and why we can’t have more immigrants from places like Norway. I can’t imagine that he doesn’t understand this, but he’s kind of slow, so I will try to explain it to him.
Why do people pack up a small portion of their belongings, leaving everything else behind—the bed that was grandma’s, the house the family has lived in for generations, all their high school friends and all their cousins and aunts and uncles, their job, their certifications, their favorite foods and special holidays—and strike out for a new life in a new country?
Well, the question more or less answers itself. No one really wants to tear up roots like that (and be aware that people in most countries have far deeper roots than we Americans do, roots that go back not just decades or generations but millennia). People only do this because, in some sense or another, they have to.
It is only people with little to lose and much to gain who would be willing to spin that roulette wheel with their own lives and the lives of their family.
But people do want to take that chance—because they see something here that they can’t achieve within their own country and culture and language.
Try to imagine that. Try to imagine yourself or your father and mother, facing a choice so stark: give up everything we know and love, or stay here and give up on our children’s future? Try to imagine that the world is ordered differently, and people born in America can’t fulfill their potential here and have to find a way, somehow, to get into a place like China. And when they get there, people look down on them for their yellow hair and their pale pasty skin, and they make fun of the way they talk, and they think the food they eat smells bad and tastes worse.
But there you are, one of the lucky ones who got in. Your Chinese is so bad that people laugh in your face and make fun of how you talk. Huh? What? You no speak? Hahah They expect you to do the jobs that no Chinese will do, and the fact that you were a teacher in the US means nothing to them. But no matter how much you struggle, you have the hope that at least your kids will grow up and speak decent Chinese, and they will have a chance at a better life.
Absurd? Unimaginable? That is the reality of millions of people who come here. They didn’t come here for fun. They came because as hard as it is, as depressing as it is, as heart-breaking and degrading as it is, it’s better than the alternative, for one reason or another—maybe because of religious persecution, or because of war or gangs, or simply because of economics.
Imagine if you worked in Michigan for $10 an hour, and you knew that if you simply walked through the woods into Canada, you could earn $100 an hour. You could send money home to you elderly parents. You could get medical care for your son with a birth defect. And suppose the Canadian government said, “No, sorry, we don’t need you”—but you knew that an employer in Canada would be willing to hire you and pay you 10 times what you were making. Would you obey the law, or would you obey a deeper law, the one that says you do whatever it takes to provide for your family.
Would any person leave home and culture unless something very strong were driving that choice? Sell all their possessions and pack what they can into 2 suitcases? Spend several years trying just to learn enough of the language to be able to answer the doctor, the police officer, the boss on the worksite? Ache with loneliness at every holiday and every special occasion, missing those left behind? Missing the weather, the land, the deep knowledge of their own traditions and language?
Would a Norwegian, or a Dane, or a Swiss person undertake such a thing? For what?
Would you willingly start a new life in even so similar a culture as Spain or Italy, never mind Vietnam or Algeria? Could you accommodate yourself to living in Japan for the rest of your life, having your children speak Japanese and your grandchildren not even understand English?
Do you have any idea how much people sacrifice of their self-image, their dignity, their self-confidence, going through culture shock, sitting in a classroom at night, after working all day, trying to learn the verb tenses and the idioms or another language?
Why do we take people from shit-hole countries? Because they’re the ones who are willing to face all this. They have so few choices that even this tough one is better than what they have. We used to understand this. We even wrote poems about it and carved it on the base of the statue that represents our country—a country of liberty:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
Give me these people from these shit-hole countries, and watch what they can do once they can breathe free! I lift my lamp not out of pity, but out of the knowledge that these people will bring strength and vitality and creativity and gratitude to this country, and they will show those shit-hole countries what its own people are actually capable of, given a chance.
Look at pictures of the immigrants of old, landing at Ellis Island. They were not “the best,” the cream of Russia and Poland and Italy’s crop. They were not highly educated. But they had the gumption to come, and they are Americans, 100% now. The countries sending them were dirt poor. Norwegians were dirt poor once too. The Irish were so poor that they subsisted on a single crop, potatoes, and when the crop failed, they starved literally to death. Koreans were the poorest people in the world in 1954! And believe me, when the pilgrims got on that pitiful little ship, England was glad to see their backs. And when they got lost on the way to Virginia and ended up in Massachusetts in December without adequate supplies or skills, the Patuxet Indians didn’t think they looked too promising. They were no one’s idea of the best and brightest!
Anyone who doesn’t know all this and who doesn’t take pride in it is not a real American. Anyone who thinks that it’s time to pull up the drawbridge and make America great by making it less true to its own ideal and history is not worthy of the name American. They are, if I may use the vernacular, full of shit.