On immigration and Skittles

Consider two pieces of writing:

“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.”

— Emma Lazarus

The New Colossus

“If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”

— Donald Trump Jr., in a tweet

This is not a post about any Trumps, or for that matter any Lazaruses. It is a post about dehumanization.

Because in 50-some-odd days, the election will be over, one candidate will win and another will lose, the world will or will not continue to spin on its axis, the sun will or will not continue on its appointed route.

But we do have to stop and consider what we think about immigrants.

Yes, certainly, some immigrants are bad people. They seem to have the same percentage of minor criminals as other people in similar socioeconomic categories, and the same percentage of psychopaths as anyone else. Some have dysfunctional families, some come from cultures we find distasteful, some have not gotten or have not retained any moral education.

But some immigrants are good people, and most immigrants are just regular people.

Whether or not we think that we should be welcoming more immigrants, or detaining and deporting them, we must realize that basic fact.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants. Just about everyone I know is a child, grandchild, or great grandchild of immigrants — except for those of my friends who are immigrants themselves. Everyone came here from somewhere else, with a story, with fear, with hope, often fleeing trauma, sometimes with great expectations, sometimes with no expectations at all.

I remember, when I was a child, standing with my great aunt Edna as she looked at a postcard she’d pinned on the wall in her Brooklyn kitchen. It was an impossibly colored scene, a so-green meadow topped by a so-blue sky dappled by so-white clouds. She looked wistful. That was Hungary, she said. That was home. She had left well before the war, I knew, so her memories were not clouded with horror, just with the sadness of leaving somewhere she’d loved and been loved forever.

Had she ever gone back? I asked. No, she said, in her delectably thick accent, an accent I always thought of as plummy and for some reason associated with Laurence Olivier, although in my imagination I meant plummy as in a great dark gloppy sweet fruit, dripping sweet rich vowels, the way he dripped cut-glass ones. (Perhaps I was an odd child, but that is a digression.) Would she ever go back? No, she said. Could she ever go back? No, she said.

I thought a lot about what it would be like being an immigrant. Saying goodbye forever to your home, to its colors, to its smells, to everything about it, down to the nails on the floor that you stared at as you waited for sleep every night. Saying goodbye forever to your friends. Saying goodbye forever to your parents.

How could anyone survive that, I wondered.

Now I know that people do survive that. They survive far worse. I know that not all immigrants can be let into this country, that they must be vetted, that they eventually must be able support themselves, that they need a great deal of help and patience if they are to assimilate into a new world.

But I also know that they are not Skittles. They are not interchangeable pieces of non-nutritious candy. They are not throwaways.

They are people.

I am so very grateful that when my grandparents came to this country, the Lady in the harbor was able to shine her torch on them. She knew that they were people, not Skittles.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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