Immigrants today seek same dream as our ancestors

On June 15, President Obama moved us one step closer to basic fairness and opportunity, a step closer to ensuring that hundreds of thousands of young immigrants will be able to continue to pursue their American dreams.

As an American, I am proud of the president’s decision to cease the deportation of law-abiding, undocumented immigrants who have grown up within our borders. The decision to relieve these 800,000 young men and women from lives of fear and begin issuing work permits is a significant step toward fairness.

I also feel something more personal. I am one of the millions of American Jews whose ancestors came to this country fleeing desperate circumstances or simply seeking a better life in a free nation — some in the 19th and 20th centuries, others long before that.

In 1654, 23 Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam — today’s New York City — seeking refuge from the Spanish Inquisition in Brazil. They petitioned the directors of the Dutch East India Co., the city’s founder, to grant the Jewish nation the right to live and work there and “enjoy liberty on condition of contributing like others.”

More than 350 years later, the commitment of American Jews to the value of liberty, and our drive to contribute to the American experiment, are as strong as ever.

American Jews are deeply concerned about our economy, which is squeezing the middle class and creating a growing divide between those that have so much and those who seem to have less each day.

In the days when my parents lost much of their money, my immigrant father would often say that if you rolled up your sleeves, worked hard and played by the rules, America offered you the best shot at success. I was 12 when he said it. Now, at 37, it seems slightly more complicated, but not by much. The reality is that this nation still offers someone the best chance of moving from poverty to affluence in a single generation. While it doesn’t happen often enough, it really only happens in America.

Immigrants disembark onto Ellis Island in 1902. The island served as the nation’s busiest inspection station from 1892 to 1954. photo/from the library of congress

That’s why so many continue to risk everything to come here — for opportunity. And it’s why we must continue as a nation to welcome these people, who come with such hope and such strength, because they are the very same people who help to make this country great and who most exemplify the promise of our nation.

It was immigrants who created America’s schools and charitable institutions, along with the world’s most vibrant economy. Rather than being a threat to U.S. workers, immigrants are disproportionately responsible for American job creation.

Consider just a few facts from a recent report by the Partnership for a New American Economy. While immigrants have comprised, on average, just over 10 percent of the population for the past 160 years, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. More recently, between 1985 and 2010, nearly 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies have been founded by immigrants.

In other words, immigrants have created millions of American jobs and contribute trillions of dollars to the American economy.

This isn’t all that surprising when you think about the qualities of strength, imagination and determination needed for people to radically alter their lives and seek a new existence in a foreign land. But many contributions of immigrants to our nation — for example, the founders of these businesses — would never have seen the light of day if they were forced to live in the shadows of laws threatening them with deportation.

America’s economy is vital, but more is at stake here. The promise of our country is that everyone can share in social and economic opportunity. That’s why, for hundreds of years, Jews have engaged in this nation’s challenges, turning on its head the backward narrative that was created about us. We also know the promise of America is that everyone has equal rights and liberties. That is the nation our ancestors came here to find, and it is our job to continue to seek it — not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

We cannot ignore what our history tells us: When any group of people is treated wrongly, everyone is harmed.

Like those 23 Sephardic Jews who arrived on our shores in 1654, today’s immigrants want to live and work in liberty and contribute to our society. The president has moved us one step closer. Now it’s time for a recalcitrant Congress to stop the scapegoating and stonewalling and move forward to enact long overdue comprehensive immigration reform.

Alan van Capelle is chief executive officer of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.