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Looking at America Through the Eyes of Visitors and Immigrants

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What an amazingly humbling experience I had this weekend when I visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

The first sight of the statue is incredibly impressive and, yes, emotional as she stands grandly at the mouth of New York Harbor just yards from America’s mainland. Imagine that you had just traveled across an ocean in a hot, crowded ship for anywhere from 10 days to six weeks or more. Carrying only your most precious belongings, you left your homeland and your family—most likely forever. You don’t speak your new country’s language. You may have a friend or family member who sponsored you, but you have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. Even more frightening, you are not guaranteed entry once you arrive—if you developed some kind of illness during the ocean crossing or if the monthly quota for immigrants from your country was already filled for the month (yes, even in the “old days,” we had country quotas for immigration). Yet you have taken all these risks for the opportunity to have a safe, prosperous future in a land based on the principles of freedom of speech, religion and assembly…and a country that not only allows but encourages ingenuity and independent pursuit of wealth.

With all the discussion in the news today about immigration and the appropriate process for screening, visiting Ellis Island is a powerful reminder that screening immigrants is not a new concept. Congress passed a temporary quota act in 1921 and a permanent one in 1924. People who arrived after a monthly quota was filled were sent back to their ports of origin. Those were the rules. If you didn’t like them, you could choose not to come.

There also were people who were referred to in the museum display as “the excluded”—those who were sent back to their homelands because they “appeared unable to work or support themselves.” The US was happy to allow able-bodied people who could contribute to the growth of this country, but it would not allow entry to LPCs—people who were “liable to become public charges.”

Interesting…isn’t this exactly the same debate going on today? Balancing the humanistic desire to help people in need…the commercial need for additional workers…and America’s core cultural belief in the diversity of our citizens? And as in the past, many current immigrants are fleeing oppressive governments, war, famine, poverty, etc., to come to our land of opportunity.

We really are, you know, an amazing land of opportunity. Perfect? No. But relative to other places in the world, we remain a place where anyone with the right drive and commitment can become a success.

The people visiting this national landmark who were interested in learning about this piece of American history were of all nationalities and cultures. It was a total cross section of the global community. People of all colors, nationalities and religions—many wearing such traditional garb as saris, scarves and head wraps, and payot, or side curls. There were several women in full burkas with just their eyes showing

I do not understand the bitterness and anger that have overtaken our country, especially when it comes to what appears to be embarrassment about our greatness. We are great…we made it that way. We worked hard…and we succeeded. Nothing to be ashamed of in that.

Setting aside for the purposes of this discussion the very real cruelties that were inflicted on Native Americans, a group of brave Europeans got on a boat and took a chance at settling this land. They worked the land, grew food, developed industries and created an environment that encouraged growth. Another group of brave people put their homes and families at risk to declare us an independent and sovereign nation. They fought a deadly war and won our freedom. And now we have spent nearly 250 years building on those early principles to attain the resources and wealth that we have today.

We are a perfect illustration of what happens when mankind is given the freedom to take personal responsibility. No one handed our Founding Fathers the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. They created it. Farms were created. Pioneers and settlers were given the chance to homestead the West…they took the challenge and they succeeded. Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin…Henry Ford, the concept of mass production…and Steve Jobs redefined design, data, communications and entertainment in one fell swoop.

It is remarkable to know what humans are capable of. We need only the laboratory in which to create.

We would not be where we are today were it not for the immigrants who founded and built this country. And we will not be able to continue to grow without new and more people—those who want to contribute for themselves and for all of us. It is up to all of us to create and sustain that fertile environment. And it is up to all of us to participate in the growth. For those who disagree with these core principles, there are other countries that operate differently and may be more compatible to their preferences. But these are the premises upon which America was built.

Similarly, Bottom Line is run on basic principles of entrepreneurship and family culture. It is not right for everyone. If someone resigns, I don’t make a counteroffer. Why? Because that employee has already decided that there is someplace better for him/her to work. I am not going to convince him otherwise. Desire has to come from within.

If you ever want a powerful reminder of desire and courage and commitment to the ideals of America, I strongly recommend a visit to Ellis Island.

#grateful.

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