When I needed to phone Tom, who played tenor sax in my dance band, I had to phone his neighbor, who spoke only a few words of English, and ask him to go next door and summon Tom to the phone. This was the way it was in 1953 in postwar Baltimore. Tom and his family lived in an East Baltimore neighborhood populated mostly by families one generation or less away from their former homes in Eastern Europe. Most of the adult males worked for Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. Some branched out into the community to work in construction or as self-employed electricians, plumbers or other service trades.
In Little Italy, not far away, lived another community, different only by the language and customs of their pre-Baltimore lands of their birth. All over town, neighborhoods were dominated by specific ethnic groups, many of them having arrived in the decade following World War II.
They faithfully worshiped in our churches or started their own. They shopped in our stores, their children attended our schools, played on their sports teams, sang in their choirs and played in their bands and orchestras. They blended with us. Married us. Became like us. Became us. They contributed mightily to the beautiful symphony of an American city.
When I moved from this richly diverse environment to Miami in 1957, I had not yet heard of Fidel Castro, but I soon learned who he was. Two years after I arrived, Castro’s guerillas overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and immediately turned Cuba into an economic and military partner with the Soviet Union. Thousands of residents of Cuba’s beautiful island died or were killed as they fled his cruel dictatorship. Most of those who survived came to Miami.
As a Miami Herald reporter, I got to witness and write about the sea change that enveloped Miami and its surrounding region, converting it to a vibrant bilingual community with a strong Latino accent. Former Cubans filled South Florida’s churches, schools and businesses. Immigrants left behind most or all of their money and possessions but not their dignity and work ethic. Former surgeons, lawyers and other professionals found work parking cars at Miami Beach hotels or washing dishes in restaurants. Wives, accustomed to being waited on by servants, took jobs behind sewing machines, stitching sport shirts in Hialeah’s hot factories.
Before long, these hard-working ex-Cubans moved up in the social and economic hierarchy, joining medical staffs, teaching in schools and universities, entering politics, becoming mayors, members of Congress. Journalists. One bright young refugee reported to me as an intern at the newspaper and in short order rose to the editorship of El Herald, my newspaper’s Spanish language edition.
These inspiring stories of the lives of immigrants who sacrificed so much as they strove to find a better life in America could be repeated many times over, all across our land. We correctly credit immigrants for making this diverse nation great. We are a nation of immigrants. Yet we want to build a wall to keep them out, and our elected representatives fight to return them to the places from which they have come. Whom, and what values, do these misguided politicians represent?
If these immigrants are here “illegally,” let us be sensible and welcome them and create a path for them to become citizens. Legal. Turning them away denies what America truly is, what makes it great. We should help them and ourselves by offering them the opportunity to continue to enrich our great nation and us. This is how a great nation strengthens itself, grows and prospers.