Visiting the house of my great grandparents brought my immigration roots home

Until my trip to Portugal last month, immigration has always felt like something that involved other people. I always knew my great grandparents [on my father’s side] were immigrants; my mother’s family [from Ireland] goes back even further.

But it was always something that felt far off in the past, not something that would ever really matter in the here and now.

But visiting the former house (pictured above) of my great grandparents in The Azores, an island chain in the Atlantic Ocean that is part of Portugal, brought the issue home to me for the first time – literally.

During my visit earlier this month to the home in the seaside parish of Bretanha, which has a population of about 600, it was hard to imagine why my great grandparents would leave that beautiful island behind.

But I know the answer: like so many Europeans who came to America, they sought a better life.

While I wrote this, I also found it hard to imagine what it must be like to find myself a newcomer to a foreign land. Short vacations are one thing, making a new life somewhere is another.

All I can imagine is that it must have been fraught with difficulties, challenges and frustration. But, also, hopefully, one where they found the version of America they hoped to find when they came here in 1931 and became citizens in 1942.

As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, each of us has a personal responsibility to treat today’s immigrants with kindness and compassion. We should strive to treat today’s immigrants like we hope our ancestors were treated when they were strangers in the home they made possible for us to be born in.

Anything less would be an egregious example of hypocrisy and selfishness – one that our ancestors would most likely be angry at us for.

We cam have strong border and an immigration policy that protects the lives of Americans without sacrificing our compassion. We can be safe and treat immigrants, legal and illegal, like the human beings they are. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The greatness of America isn’t affirmed in how well the economy does or how strong the military is. It’s affirmed in how successful immigrants are and how successful they assimilate to our way of life.

As long as this is the kind of country where immigrants can succeed and feel welcome, it will be a country worth living in.