this opinion piece I wrote appeared in the Sunday Albany Times Union
One of the most upsetting news stories in upstate New York which the Times Union reported this year was the trek of Haitian families and other refugees – over 5000 in August alone – making their way by taxi or private car in a steady stream to a remote northern New York border crossing at Champlain, New York leading to Quebec. They were leaving the United States in the hope of finding a more welcoming government in Canada. Many Americans like me grew up during the Cold War knowing that people from other countries always wanted to come to America not flee it in fear. The plight of the Haitians and other refugees is a sad shock to this very image of America. Recently, President Trump confirmed that his administration will cut the number of refugees to be admitted this year to its lowest level in decades and they will aggressively seek to deport illegal immigrants.
Canada has been a safe haven that some Americans have had to flee to before. During the Civil War and the Vietnam War, some Americans sought safety in Canada. In upstate and northern New York, many of us are very familiar with the nineteenth century history of the Underground Railroad in our communities, that passionate effort of abolitionists to move African American slaves quietly through our towns across the border to freedom in Canada.
Over a century later in the early 1970s when I was in college during the Vietnam War many young men of my Baby Boomer generation were heading to Toronto and other places in Canada as conscientious objectors or draft resisters opposed to the war. Those were the days before the all-volunteer military. By the time I turned 18 and registered with the Selective Service in 1971, the war and the draft were winding down and I never got the draft call.
Canada is not a perfect country either and is undergoing its own soul searching and debates regarding the past treatment of native populations and even of the French speaking minority in Quebec. Today though, not only is Canada welcoming many refugees and immigrants including those leaving the United States, it is also opening its arms to accept gays from Chechnya who have been persecuted and tortured for who they are.
Regarding immigration, this is not the first time that Canada has been a destination for foreigners who wanted to come to America. In the early part of the 20th century, a resentment of a large number of immigrants, especially Italians and southern Europeans resulted in Congress passing the Immigration Act of 1924. It limited new immigrants from Italy and other countries to 2% of those in the country at the time of the 1890 census. 3 million Italians came in the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1921, 222,260 Italians came but by 1925 after the law, the number of Italians who entered the country dropped to 6203. There were actually more Italians who left the United States than entered.
I grew up hearing the lovely sound of the Italian language from my grandparents and other relatives. My maternal grandparents and their siblings left the poverty and lack of economic opportunity in the southern Italian province of Calabria and came to America in the early part of the 20th century, settling in Massena, New York. After the 1924 law, many members of the extended family who may have wanted to come to America later settled instead across the border in Cornwall, Ottawa and Toronto.
My father’s parents, made their way earlier from southern Italy to Rochester. His extended family did not go to Canada but my father and his brothers feared the discrimination against Italians. They feared that the family name Bonacci would be a roadblock to their careers. So, they changed their last names. Despite the hostility of the time, America gave my grandparents and their generation a better life.
The freedom and opportunity America gave my grandparents and the generations which have followed is why I am in solidarity with those seeking to come here today. I look forward to the day the President of the United States and the majority of our Congressional representatives again value the economic skills, diversity, and dynamism that immigrants bring to our country. I also look forward to a time when people in the rest of the world see America again as a safe haven and a place of refuge for many still seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.