A new presidential administration is the chance for new opportunities. A fresh start. I can think of no better issue to address than immigration. It is time for America to regain the ground we lost as a beacon of light and home of the free. It is time we restore the American spirit that welcomed the immigrant and refugee ancestors of so many of us today
The people of our country have three histories: Indigenous, enslaved, and immigrant/refugee. My ancestors, like those of all white Americans, were in the latter category. They first stepped on these shores in the 1600s and continued arriving over the next few centuries. Their reasons for becoming Americans were varied, from economic opportunity, escaping poverty, and fleeing religious persecution. I believe it is important we learn our ancestors’ histories. They are our stories. Our ancestors were new Americans like the new Americans of today. The stories have stayed the same.
My most recent immigrant ancestors were Jonathan and Harriet Atkinson. Jonathan came in 1874, leaving behind a wife and infant son so he could prepare a life in America for the family. They believed the hardship and separation were worthwhile. Eight years later, Harriet and their son arrived. Jonathan worked dirty jobs no one wanted, such as cleaning railroad cars. It provided a life in America for the family, albeit a difficult life. He and Harriet knew it was worth it for the future of their children, including my grandfather, Alexander. Jonathan became an American citizen in 1897, 8 months before he died at the age of 47. Harriet began taking laundry in the home as a widow. The children took difficult jobs beginning in adolescence to support the family. They became domestic servants, worked in cracker factories, and in construction. They took whatever work they could find with their limited education. The educational opportunity was saved for the youngest child.
My grandfather, Alexander, came to Hamilton as a young man. He married a local woman, Mildred Pilkington. Her ancestry in America ran deeper and longer than his, but the hopes and dreams were all the same, always looking toward tomorrow and making a better future for the next generation. Her Pilkington roots were recent in America, following a new religion. The rest of her tree was firmly set with roots in New Amsterdam and New Jersey. The Guldens became Goldens, adapting like immigrants do today. Huguenots fled religious persecution in France. One father even left a young son in America, their new home, while he attempted to rescue other family members from France. He did not return, but his son lives on in me. This is still the story of America. Parents instinctually bring their children to the land of the free with their own acts of bravery.
Immigrants of today share the same story of dreams and sacrifice as my ancestors. We need immigrants because they are intrinsic to the American story and enrich the fabric of America through their sweat, sacrifice, and dreams. They take nothing for granted and hold a pride in America that relates to the best part of our history. Like my ancestors, they work the hard jobs we and our children do not want. They help our economy move. They do not always speak English, but they learn it just as my German, French, and Dutch ancestors did.
America is woven together with yarn made by the strength of dreams, tears, hopes, and joy. It always has and we should be proud. The descendants of slaves and Indigenous people add their unique story of pain and resilience, our strongest yarn. We should be proud of the multi-color fabric and diversity that is America. Let us ensure the American dream burns bright for all again.
Mary Jo Riesberg
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