Finding room once again for a Morris Waldman
Morris Waldman was 12 years old when he journeyed from Poland to the United States, looked up at the hallways of Ellis Island, and walked in a line of millions into the American Dream. In 1924, weeks before the doors of immigration closed more tightly, his American experience began. Within a few short years, with little education and English skills, my grandfather was the owner of a tiny corner grocery store in downtown Newark. Those who remained in his small Polish village were ultimately lost to the anti-semitic waves rolling into World War II. Morris’ story–Jewish immigrants from the region known as the Pale of Settlement, in his case a tiny shtetle in Poland (modern day Ukraine)–combines with hundreds of millions of others from countries around the world and shapes our national story.
Today, as the 2016 presidential campaign grabs headlines and the tragedies of terrorism continue, our state and national dialogue once again returns to the question of whom to welcome and how wide to open the doors.
Governor Jay Inslee has recently attempted, in the spirit of former Gov. Dan Evans who welcomed Vietnamese immigrants in their hour of need, to elevate our national dialogue about immigration by reminding us of our broad national story. Many others, who fear the real or perceived elevated risks of immigration from today’s global hotspot of Syria, prefer to hold the line on new entrants until even stronger assurances of risk reduction are possible.
Our state history calls on us to be cautious and aware of the implications of rash judgement to close our doors. We are called on to see our own grandmothers and grandfathers, neighbors, children and friends in the faces of those who today seek the safety of our shores. We are not obligated to avert our eyes to danger or clear threats based on evidence, but neither are we pushed to overreact to the perception of danger that may be greater than the reality.
We can never eliminate all safety risk and logistically, it seems, potential dangers associated with tourist visas pose a far greater danger than the vetting process for immigration itself. So none of this is to suggest there is only one answer or approach, but only to say that our national dialogue about immigration is the conversation of our entire country’s history. Today’s dialogue reminds us of yesterday’s debate with new names.
In the darkest times in our history of immigration, we sometimes allowed rage, fear and xenophobia to dominate our actions. Today’s Syrians are yesterday’s Jews, Irish, Italians and all others who were once the “other.” Yet, somehow, for generations we managed against pressure of the day to hold true and firm to the big dreams etched at the base of Ellis Island.
In the name, spirit and memory of Morris Waldman–a hero who toiled in deep humility and did his part the minute he passed through Ellis Island to make America greater–I stand with those children who have no voice and ask us to open the door to the American Dream. Surely we can find room for a 12-year old boy from Syria who is a Morris Waldman of tomorrow.
Your partner in service,