Mares: Immigration

Aug 30, 2016

I’m on the board of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, a 65-year old group founded by, among others, Vermont Sen. Warren G. Austin the first American ambassador to the U.N.

Our goal is to bring “Vermont to the world and the world to Vermont" through public forums and programs – like hosting federally sponsored foreign visitors who wish to study such topics as women in politics, social entrepreneurship and cultural heritage preservation. So far this year we’ve hosted 140 guests from more than 100 countries.

Most recently, our programs have mainly centered on the international refugee crisis - from co-sponsoring a concert to benefit Syrian refugees, to a Belgian speaker on cross-cultural management and diversity issues, only one week after the Brussels attacks.

Our annual meeting speaker was the head of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Vermont. This October we’ll host Robert S. Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, and through other programming and events, hope to join the Mayor of Rutland in welcoming the Syrian refugees.

This focus on immigration inspired me to re-read Vermont historian Vince Feeney's excellent book about Irish immigration to Vermont. And I also dusted off a classic work on immigration called The Uprooted, by Oscar Handlin – a book I’d last read in college.

Handlin is generally recognized as the founder of immigration studies. He wrote compellingly about emigration to the U.S. up to World War One of the first 35 million from West, Central and Eastern Europe - my grandfather among them.

Along the way, Handlin noted one of great ironies of American history - that just as the American frontier was closing the U.S. launched its own empire abroad, from Cuba to the Philippines. In fact, English poet Rudyard Kipling dedicated his poem "The White Man's Burden" to the U.S. – about the same time domestic academics were launching a eugenics movement aimed at so-called "lesser races".

By today's perspective the book is incomplete because it doesn't spend much time on Asian immigration, the vast numbers of Hispanic immigrants, or war refugees of the ‘60s.

On the micro level, too, times are different. My grandfather fled to America to avoid being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. A new Council board member is Midhat Hadjic, who fled Serbian bullets and ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian Civil War.

But certainly the opening of Handlin’s book still rings true. "Once I thought to write a history of immigrants in America,” he wrote. “Then I discovered that immigrants were American history."