Originally from Genoa, a port city in what is now Italy, Christopher Columbus persuaded Spain's Queen Isabella many years ago to underwrite an expedition to search for a westerly route to India.
Columbus didn’t quite deliver on what he promised; instead he found something far more glorious, the gateway to what is now known as the Americas thanks to a long ago mapmaker’s mistake, labeling the newly discovered continent for another explorer, Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.
On Monday we honor Columbus for his discovery and, in the process, have the opportunity to use the day as one honoring the contributions immigrants have made to every aspect of American culture and society.
Columbus was himself an immigrant twice over—resettling both in Spain and in the western hemisphere, an experience many in the United States can relate to. America is, after all, a nation founded and built by immigrants. Many families still tell stories about at least one ancestor who arrived on U.S. shores with little more than what they could carry in pursuit, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "of happiness. "
Whether that happiness was defined as the freedom to worship according to the dictates of individual conscience, as was the case with some of the earliest settlers, or as the ability to build a better life for one's children and grandchildren, it is undeniable that immigrants played a major role in building the country.
Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant, was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and the principal author of The Federalist Papers, which explained the rationale behind the radically new idea of a government of separated powers grounded in popular sovereignty. Where it not for Hamilton, the U.S. Constitution might not have come into being as we now know it.
Immigrant Andrew Carnegie built the company—U.S. Steel—that built the nation. Immigrant David Sarnoff’s Radio Corporation of America drove home radio and then television as indispensable elements of U.S. popular culture. Immigrant Andy Grove and his Intel Corporation drove the information revolution with the computer chips manufactured by the company he founded, something he never could have done in his native Hungary.
Immigrants all, they are acknowledged for their individual accomplishments. Like Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Joseph Pulitzer, Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, and many others they are honored for the contributions they made to the United States and, in some cases, the world. Contributions they might not have made—or been able to make—had they not at some point come to America.
The United States is awash in anti-immigrant sentiment, focusing on the challenges the influx of new immigrants presents rather than the contributions they are making and may make at sometime in the future. These issues are really more about assimilation than immigration and can in fact be resolved, keeping America the world's "great melting pot."
From Columbus forward, immigrants have made the United States stronger, richer, healthier, and, most importantly, a better place. To honor them, to honor their contributions, keeps alive the idea of America as a "shining city on a hill" beckoning to all who seek a better life. We need to make Columbus Day the day to honor those who seek and who have sought freedom and prosperity on our shores.
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