Looking Up Longfellow Street: Questions to ask, and answer: Who is us? And who is them?

Immigration is very personal to me in the present and in my past. After four years of hateful talk about immigrants by the previous resident of the White House, President Biden is going to work on legislative reform, rather than attacking the people who have always brought energy, prosperity, and vision to our country.

I have mentioned in earlier pieces in this space that in the 43 houses on Longfellow Street there live natives of Dominica, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, the British Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Panama, Dominican Republic, Cape Verde and Vietnam alongside Puerto Ricans, Irish Americans and African Americans from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Boston. We are all friends who watch out for each other’s kids, attend family weddings, baptisms, graduations, and cookouts. And we all, or our families, came here from somewhere else. We are all close to immigration.

I have been thinking about my own family. Three of my grandparents were early 20th-century Irish immigrants. The fourth was from Providence, R.I. Her Irish family came across fleeing the potato famine and gave up three boys who died for the Union in that first insurrection. The established Yankees hated the Irish who came to Boston in the mid-1800s in wave after wave, destitute, illiterate, praying in a foreign religion, and speaking more Gaelic than English. The so-called Paddies were the immigrant “caravans” of the nineteenth century. During the Great Famine on the island of Ireland, English landlords found it cheaper to drive entire villages onto ships bound for Boston than pay to feed them. Photos of those who survived the squalid, disease-ridden death ships show scrawny, hollow-eyed creatures in rags looking like the cast of The Walking Dead. They were fleeing poverty and looking for asylum.

And how about the poor who fled the medieval servitude and destitution of early 20th century Sicily and Calabria. Many of the depredations visited on their Irish predecessors were repeated on them as Papists, non-English speakers, illiterate, and unskilled. They were fleeing poverty and looking for asylum.

And the Jews who fled Russian and Polish pogroms. Poor, with the wrong religion, “Christ killers,” non-English speaking. They were fleeing poverty and violence and looking for asylum. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers were brought across the Pacific in the mid-to-late 1800s to build the railroads that straddled the American continent. Their reward? Ruthless bosses, unprovoked killings, the lowest wages, and, finally, the 1875 Page Act that forbid the immigration of Chinese women (lest they make anchor babies) and the 1880 Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law ever passed to exclude people based on race or ethnicity – the Muslim ban of its time. They were fleeing poverty and looking for a better life for their children.

This space for this column is inadequate to contain the story of the horrors of the Middle Passage slave trade that produced the largest enforced movement of humanity ever recorded, and which Massachusetts Governor Dewey permitted in the Bay Colony. Nor is there space to go into the European invasion of North America and massacre of the native peoples to establish the Empire of the United States. But those first nation natives also wanted freedom and were destroyed by violence.

The hatred generated against immigrants is embedded in current US immigration policy that President Biden is seeking to put on a rational, fact-based footing. His US Citizenship Act of 2021 will stabilize our immigration system, and show the world that we are a nation of rules combined with honor. No more Muslim bans. Citizenship for the DACA kids. A clear, step-by-step path to citizenship for the more than ten million “noncitizen” residents so that they can unleash their full economic potential for the country.

An estimated three out of four undocumented residents are essential workers. Millions more entered this country in Temporary Protected Status programs after devastating hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters crippled their home countries. They became the farm workers, health care workers, office cleaners that we depend on. We need these people to help us rebuild our economy and speed the national recovery from the pandemic.

We also need to answer to the ideals that our democracy was built on. Biden’s reform is not merely a bureaucratic improvement. Speaking for our higher angels, it will help define answers that we are giving to questions that are central to our human condition, “Who is us? And who is them?” “How do we treat us and how do we treat them?” What so many of us forget is the way our “us” was treated once upon a time. It is time to add “forgetfulness” to the list of the deadly sins.