“In the sufferer let me see the human being.”— Maimonides
We have been here before. A pandemic threatening communities around the world; protests and outrage over systemic injustice; leadership that fails to inspire. While 2020 has been a seemingly endless parade of calamity, what we are experiencing is not new. By now, we have all heard more about the flu pandemic of 1918 than any other generation in the last century. What we learned about that time teaches us that in addition to the devastation that can be caused by a microscopic viral interloper, there is the same talk of nativist conspiracy theories, the same complaints from mask skeptics, and the same unfounded fear of the outsiders. Unlike 1918, however, we have an added element of upheaval—historic protests in the wake of police violence and racially motivated injustice. And if that wasn’t enough, reports of wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters seem to fill the few quiet moments when our news feeds aren’t engulfed in political or social chaos. Trouble abounds.
I don’t share this list of calamities to shock, nor do I feel it necessary to point a finger or assign blame. History will do that for us. No, I bring it up to remind readers that as dark as the horizon appears, ours is not the first generation to have to stare down misfortune. As an immigration attorney and a community leader, I have reason to believe that we can rise to the moment. We have been here before.
America has long been a refuge for those escaping suffering and oppression. How many of our ancestors fled to these shores to escape poverty, famine, disease, or hate disguised as political ideology? Throughout the 19th century, wave upon wave of immigrants arrived from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe to start a new life. And for the most part, they were successful. Even today, despite what is undoubtedly one of the most restrictive periods in the comparatively short life of the U.S. immigration system, I continue to represent clients who have found refuge from certain death at the hands of tyrannical governments or unmitigated humanitarian crises. They are exceptional professionals and artists who want to contribute to the country. They are human beings looking for safety and a future.
When I speak to law students about the history of American immigration policy, many of them already know how immigrants have been able to flourish upon arriving in the U.S. But fewer are aware of the struggle that follows, particularly those without a recent example of immigration in their lives. To say that immigrants work hard to start new lives in America is an almost comical understatement. They devote countless hours to establishing homes and businesses. They start families and build communities. But theirs is impossibly difficult, often heartbreaking work. In communities that have been hollowed out by blight or poverty, immigrants are the first wave of renewal—and more often than not, they are the first to be pushed out by gentrification. In some communities, there is significant resentment over newcomers, such as that experienced by Somali refugees in Minnesota or, not too long ago, by Jewish and Catholic immigrants in “liberal” cities like New York or Boston. But despite it all, they struggled and scraped, and before long “they” became “we.”
I’ve recently had another reason to consider the significance of the moment we’re in and how we can take solace from the lessons of the past. I am the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey, a small city with a diverse population. For the last three months, I have spent my weekends meeting and marching with representatives of our black community, including representatives of the BLM movement, as well as other activists and allies in the pursuit of social justice for all Americans. I think about everything I learned growing up, of lessons of Selma, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and Bloody Sunday. I think about the legacy of Congressman John Lewis, an inspiring figure who I was once fortunate enough to host in my home, and the work that remains in the wake of his passing. I am struck by the parallels of the African-American and immigrant experiences in America; both groups have fought to overcome “otherness,” both have created cultural and political spaces to empower their communities, and both have been the victims of injustice. As I continue to learn about the lives and struggles of the black families in my community and beyond, I am humbled by the generations of individuals whose resilience and passion could not, and cannot, be denied or silenced. When I see the protests that have been organized around the country, I do not see unrest—I see history. I see people willing to say, “Enough.”
The only easy thing about 2020 is how simple it would be to give in to despair. Many of us look at the country and wonder, “Is this the America I knew?” The answer is … no. And maybe that’s a good thing. Because there is another aspect to America, one that isn’t always covered in textbooks or celebrated in parades. It is a place where justice is at times denied, and outsiders can be rendered invisible. And while that particular version of the country may seem alien and hostile to many of us, it is a reality for tens of millions. But it does not have to stay that way.
Learning from the generations that have come before us, we can overcome the diseases that are in our midst—those that threaten us physically and others that challenge us morally. What is happening now is temporary. Like millions of others who have faced adversity, we can and will find the strength to move forward. We have been here before.
Michael Wildes is an immigration lawyer and the managing partner of Wildes & Weinberg, PC. He is a former federal prosecutor, an adjunct professor of immigration law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the author of “Safe Haven in America: Battles to Open the Golden Door.” Wildes is also the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey.