Immigration is the story of our families

  • President-elect Joe Biden waves as he departs the Queen Theatre after meeting virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (Mark Makela/Getty Images/TNS)

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to restore protection to “Dreamers,” provide a pathway to citizenship for other immigrants, rescind his predecessor’s travel bans and allow in more refugees. It is a welcome break from the cruelty of his predecessor, who separated children from their parents and put them in cages.

Immigration is often discussed as an abstract political concept. But for so many of us, it’s the story of our family.

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My mother, Violetta Tironi, born in Milan, Italy, in 1931, was a studious girl who liked sports. Her father, Sergio, was a police officer. Her mother, Giuseppina, worked in a bank.

World War II turned her life upside down, as it did for so many others. She recalls huddling in a dark cellar of an apartment building to wait out Allied bombing raids, spending hours until the siren would signal that it was safe to come out. She remembered seeing rats, stirred by the underground tremors, crawling over the pipes. One of these raids struck a train, killing her cousin and her uncle.

After her studies, my mother set out to find work in the United States. She left the family’s apartment on Washington Street in Milan, took a train to the coast and, on July 4, American Independence Day, boarded the Giulio Cesare for an 11-day journey from Genoa to New York.

After a brief stint at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, my mom and dad moved to Kentucky and settled in Barbourville, a coal mining town of about 3,000 people, where they would practice medicine for more than 40 years and raise 10 kids.

It must have been difficult for a big-city European girl to relocate to small-town Appalachia. She had to come to terms with concepts like “dry counties,” where no legal alcohol could be sold. Catholics in the 1960s there were often treated like visitors from outer space. When told what church we went to, neighbors expressed consolation and pity.

As an immigrant, too, it must have been initially lonely, having to make new friends among people with whom she shared little culturally. No doubt, she could relate to others who felt like outsiders.

One holiday season, when I was about 7, we were out delivering gifts to friends. Mom stopped the station wagon behind a downtown store, handed me a bottle of wine and instructed me to take it up the long staircase in the back, to give a special greeting to the woman who lived inside.

I suspected the message was some sort of inside joke between the two of them, but I did as I was told. When the lady opened the door, I shouted: “Happy Hanukkah!” She burst into tears and kissed my face until my cheeks were wet. Mom knew just what she needed to hear.

Citizens will continue to have honest differences over immigration policy, which is, after all, quite complicated. But when people talk about immigrants in the same way that they speak of an airborne illness, they are disparaging our story, the unique legacy and lifeblood of our nation.

If you go back far enough, all of us are from someplace else. We all start as outsiders hoping to belong.

Diversity is what truly makes — and keeps — America great.

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Happy Hanukkah.

Joe Hayden is a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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