It’s sort of an American tradition to treat immigrants to this country like dirt and try to get the most work out of them for the least money. If your family was among the first waves of immigrants to the U.S.—the Germans or the Irish, for example—their experience as new arrivals was was a long time ago and perhaps forgotten. Yet, Benjamin Franklin opposed German immigration, stating that they would not assimilate into the culture. There was an anti-Irish “Know Nothing” movement in the 1840s and ‘50s predicated on the idea that Irish Catholic immigrants were overwhelming the country. The largest mass-lynching ever in the U.S. took place in 1891, after several Italian immigrants were acquitted of a murder in New Orleans. The scorn has been renewed with each new wave of newcomers–Jews from eastern Europe; my relatives, those dirty Scandinavians; the list goes on.
Literature takes immigration from the realm of policy and the culture wars, the view of immigrants as “those other people,” and makes it real. There’s no better way to get a glimpse immigrant life in America than by reading their stories. Their experiences kindle empathy, no matter what your political views. To that end, fellow book-blogger Colleen at Books in the City has thrown down the gauntlet with a reading challenge: to read a specified number of books about the immigrant experience in 2011. Check out the reading list. I plan to read Major Pedigrew’s Last Stand (Helen Simonson), Zeitoun (Dave Eggers), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) and 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Jane Ziegelman).