Michael Dowling: Let's remember who we are as Americans

At a time when we are confronted with near-daily reports about the dangers posed by immigrants, it is important to remind ourselves of who we are as Americans — immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. It is important for us to reflect on our history and to think of those who came before us, making it possible for each of us to benefit from their courage and hardship.

Let's also reflect on the fact that many of our parents and grandparents came here to escape poverty, famine, oppression and discrimination — with nothing but a dream to have freedom and opportunity.

We all came from different places, and while our individual stories are unique, they share a common element. Being Irish and an immigrant, I too often heard stories of the Irish immigrants who came to America to make new lives for themselves. Yet, much like the reaction to many immigrants arriving today, they were accused of being lazy, unruly and criminals whose only goal was to take jobs away from hardworking Americans.

Today, nearly 33 million Irish-Americans make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population and are regarded as major contributors to America's success, but it wasn't too long ago that they were reviled and ridiculed by politicians and the mainstream media, and discriminated against in education and employment.

Thomas Nast, the famous 19th-century cartoonist, gained his reputation, in part, by portraying Irish immigrants as criminals, drunkards and marauders. "Want ads" in the New York newspapers often specified that Irish need not apply. The most well-known nativist movement arose in the mid-1800s with the creation of a political party commonly known as the "Know Nothings," which blamed the Irish and Germans for social ills such as rising crime and poverty rates. The movement resulted in anti-immigrant violence during the 1840s and 1850s in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities.

That level of scorn, discrimination and distrust was later inflicted, to varying degrees, on each successive wave of immigrants — Italians, Jewish and Chinese, to name a few. Xenophobic rhetoric has a long history dating back to the late 1700s, when a member of Congress argued that the nation had no more room for immigrants — an argument that has been rehashed by small-minded politicians for centuries.

Without a doubt, the question of immigration is an extremely complicated one, and there are valid points raised by those who argue for a cautious policy that carefully and efficiently vets each newcomer. However, we should all remind ourselves of a few key facts:

  • Don't forget that we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants — a fact that helps to provide historical perspective;
  • As we debate immigration policy, we must temper the rational with the humane, and balance caution with respect for people who are brave enough and determined enough — and who too often have no other choice — to confront danger and leave everything behind to try to forge a new life in America.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the history and success of America is the history of immigrants and immigration.

Despite the hardships that they faced, our forbearers persevered and created this great country. They established businesses and became corporate leaders and elected officials, many of whom today are extolled as American heroes. We are now the beneficiaries of their efforts.

The issue of immigration is central to my personal experience. Though I now have the privilege of serving as president and CEO of Northwell Health, New York's largest healthcare provider and private employer with a workforce of 68,000, I was born in southwest Ireland to a family of very modest means.

Like so many other "dreamers" before me, I moved to America in search of a better life. As I marched down Fifth Avenue as the grand marshal of the 2017 St. Patrick's Day Parade, I could not help but think of the millions of men, women and children who left behind homes and families for a shot at the American dream — and an opportunity to contribute.

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