July 4: A day to compare Ellis Island to todays immigration fireworks

Every year on the Fourth of July, between the barbecues and fireworks, I take a few minutes to ruminate on my place in America. I’m proud to be a third-generation American, and no ineffectual presidents or blowhard judges can take that away from me. Call me naïve, but I still believe this is the greatest country on Earth.

Part of my love for America comes from the fact that in the early 20th century, this country took in my persecuted ancestors from Eastern Europe, no questions asked. When no one else wanted them, the Statue of Liberty lifted its lamp beside the golden door. Their lives in America might not have been easy — but they lived.

Growing up I had many immigrant friends, most of them from the former Soviet Union. Back then I knew what a green card was, but beyond that I knew virtually nothing about the immigration process. Thinking back to my visits to Ellis Island, I imagined them simply arriving at passport control and announcing, “I want to be an American!” — or something to that effect.

Years later I learned that as Russian Jews, my friends had qualified for refugee status. But when I was a child, I figured immigration to the U.S. must be easy for everyone. After all, my great-grandparents didn’t seem to have any problems with it, nor did my friends. How hard could it possibly be?

Then I met my fiancé. When I met him, he was on a student visa, studying at my university. But we were seniors, and his visa was about to expire.

Most people don’t know it, but immigration in today’s America is as complicated as the tax code, if not more so. Over the next few months, I would add over a dozen new letter-and-number combinations to my lexicon: F-1 OPT, H1-B, H-2, K-1, J-1, and forms with names like G-325 and I-129F.

I was born in America, and even my mind was boggled by the complexity of immigration bureaucracy — and how nearly impossible it is to actually get that coveted green card. There’s a visa for practically every letter of the alphabet — but almost none of them will let someone stay for long.

In the end, after a long and expensive process, my fiancé was able to secure his place here for the foreseeable future. But he’s one of the lucky ones. For his friends and family still in South Africa, many of whom face unmitigated crime and discrimination on a daily basis, the American dream is out of reach.

Most of the time, I find it hard to relate to my immigrant ancestors. I have a good, happy life — I don’t know from persecution or discrimination.

Yet it is on days such as the Fourth of July that I am keenly aware that my own history is the narrative of the immigrant. While I might have been privileged enough to be born in this country, my family wasn’t part of the Boston Tea Party or westward migration. We were immigrants in steerage, tired and sea-tossed, searching for a place where we wouldn’t be killed for being Jewish. And America, full of promise, was that place.

On the Fourth of July, I celebrate my family’s freedom. But these days, I also find myself acknowledging how much things have changed.

I wonder what it would have been like had my great-grandparents come to America today. Would they even have made it off the boat? And if they did, would they have been lost in a sea of A numbers and I-864 forms?

For many people today who come looking for a better life, the door is closed. Just think of what we could gain by creating a fair immigration process that judges people on what they can contribute to our great society, not just whether or not they were lucky enough to marry an American.

This year, ahead of the presidential election, many people are talking about immigration. As Jews, our obligation is to remember our roots and guide the discussion toward a recognition of the difficulties today’s immigrants face — and how important it is for the U.S. to remain an outstretched arm to those in need, from all the communities and religions of the world.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].