Donald Trump finally got my attention with one word: aliens. He does not use it as a legal term but as a condemnation. He spits out the word, conjuring up weird, bug-eyed creatures with Spock-like ears and antennae – ugly, lawless ETs. This is what comes of being illegal. Legal immigrants are, well, immigrants, and some of them are “really talented people.” We know that because they’ve gone to Harvard and Yale. Or are some of these people among the aliens? If so, they can come back some day, but first they’ve got to go. As if they belonged in level 7 or 8 of Dante’s Hell but might prove themselves to be a better sort if they hung out in Limbo for a while.

I wonder if my three immigrant grandparents were aliens in Trump-speak. One came from Russia as a baby with her parents. They ran a candy store on York Avenue in Manhattan – clearly not “really talented people” or they would have founded Hershey. My Irish grandmother came alone to this country from the tiny town of Clara where she worked in a jute factory. She was 17 and never finished elementary school; she became an “upstairs maid” in Brooklyn. Her priest commended her as a very “good girl,” the kind he hated to lose to America. But a “really talented” person? Not by Mr. Trump’s standards, unless washing bed sheets counts for something. And finally my paternal grandfather came, speaking only Yiddish and Hungarian, trained as a journeyman mechanic, and a card-carrying member of the radical Wobblies. Positively dangerous.

Yet each of them, as different as they could be from each other, made a living, and raised and educated their families in New York. All of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have graduated from college and beyond. And, though only one went to Harvard and Yale, they are, by any measure really talented, and exceptionally lucky. Lucky that their great-grandparents were courageous enough to cross an ocean for the opportunity offered in America and that they, as my mother would have said, made something of themselves. My grandparents did not do that by going to Ivy League schools or by running a big business. They did it by hard work in ordinary jobs, mostly working with their hands.

Mr. Trump’s nativism is not new to America. He did not invent xenophobia. But in fanning these flames, he invites us to despise the courage it takes to risk everything in hopes of coming out ahead. It is ironic that Mr. Trump does not recognize a kindred moxie.

One Comment on “Aliens”

  1. bfaculjak says:

    Jane, I had a nearly identical reaction. I am very proud of the fact that both sets of my grandparents came through Ellis Island (from Italy and Croatia). Not only am I deeply chagrined by the “build a wall” mentality in the face of being all fairly new to the country ourselves, there seems no better model for a self-starter than a new citizen.


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