Use Columbus Day to Honor Immigrants

We shouldn't see Columbus as a despoiler of native cultures, but rather use his day as a celebration of the contributions immigrants have made to America.

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Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus is shown in this work by Italian painter Sebastiano Del Piombo.

On Monday we once again marked the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus, an Italian from the port city of Genoa who, in 1492, persuaded the Spanish Queen Isabella to underwrite an expedition to find a way to get to India by sea by sailing west.

He didn't make it. What he did do, however, was far more glorious. He opened the gateway to the Americas which, thanks to a long-ago mapmaker's mistake, labeled the discovered continents north and south of the equator for the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.

In remembering Columbus we have the opportunity to—rather than seeing him as a despoiler of native cultures, a bringer of disease, and the first in the pantheon of dead, white, Christian male oppressors—use his day to honor the contributions immigrants have made to every aspect of American culture and society.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Obama Right to Grant Young Illegal Immigrants Work Permits?]

Columbus was an immigrant twice over: from Italy to Spain and from Spain to 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 have played and continue to play 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. Were it not for Hamilton, the U.S. Constitution might not have come into being as we now know it.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

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.

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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