In the United States, we count differently: “foreign-born” does not include children born here to immigrant parents, who are granted US citizenship at birth.
So it’s hard to make a direct comparison. But the US Census says 12.7% of us are foreign-born, as of 2010, which is close to where we were 100 years ago, when immigration was at its peak.
And yet former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had this to say in a recent speech: “I don’t know when immigrants became the enemy.” She said one of the greatest disappointments of her career was the Bush administration’s failure to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
I know there’s a lot of anti-immigrant backlash in France, too, and I’m sure I’ll hear more about it on my trip. But it makes me sad to think that our country’s self-image of open arms and opportunity, of the Statue of Liberty lighting the way for newcomers to our shores, has slipped so far that effective immigration reform now seems further away than ever.
Condi Rice went on to say our immigrant culture is, quote, “at the core of our strength.” She’s right. And we forget, at our peril, that nearly all of us have immigrant roots.
After France, I’m headed for the first time in my life to the country my own ancestors came from: Finland.
I’ll be retracing the steps of my great-grandmother, who traveled from Finland to Wyoming in 1899. Her name and destination were pinned to her coat because she didn’t speak a word of English.
When I stumbled across Iceland Air’s unbeatable deal, my first impulse was to close that window, fast. But Finland haunts me. My great-grandmother haunts me.
By the time she and her husband staked a homestead claim in Montana in 1910, they were both 40. But they’d bought into the optimism of the West. They were a new generation of settlers, wholly unlike the early Oregon trailers. They were Americans now, though they spoke Finnish at home and taught it to their six children.
I don’t know what I expect to find in Finland, so poor when my ancestors left; now one of the most affluent, progressive countries in the world. Remember that 2010 Gallup Happiness poll? Finland came in second, after Denmark. For the record, the US was 14th and France was 44th, but maybe that’s because the French just don’t like to admit to anything as bland as satisfaction.
In Finland, I’ll do what Americans do: hunt up distant relatives; find the towns whose names I’ve heard all my life: Kaustinen, Raavi, Oolu. Call it a pilgrimage; call it a search for the prequel to a story I’m still writing: my own. Call it a shout out to immigration. I don’t always find myself agreeing with Condi Rice. But I’m with her on this one.