Notes of a native great-great grandson

Exploring Old World roots gives me a fresh perspective on immigration issues

Jay Walljasper | December 2004 issue

En route to Ode’s Rotterdam office last month, I took part in what is becoming a familiar ritual for many Americans: meeting the European cousins. The Walljasper clan hails from Westphalia, a scenic stretch of farms and forest in northwest Germany. The Old World relatives welcomed me with endless rounds of home-cooked food, good beer (from a brewery I could see out their window) and hearty conversation. I felt like an honored member of the family, even though we share no more than 1/32 of the same bloodline. My great-great grandparents Otto and Katharina left in 1846, enduring a three-month voyage to New Orleans and then a trip up the Mississippi to the wilds of Iowa.

We made a pilgrimage to Otto and Katharina’s farmhouse, or at least the small corner of it that remains after 150 years of remodeling. Encircled by linden trees in the middle of a nearby village green was the stone church where they worshipped; its bell started ringing for evening mass just as we arrived. A beer garden sat right across the lane and beyond that was a winding street of shops and cafes. This is the European charm that Americans spend great sums of money to experience. I looked around and wondered what compelled my great-great grandparents to make the arduous journey to America.

The next day, at another festive party of coffee and cake, I found out why. A distant cousin showed me a book documenting local emigrants’ journeys to America. Most years, just a few people left—probably the adventurers, the rebels, the daughters who hated the idea of becoming farmwives, the sons who had gotten some girl pregnant. But in 1846, it appeared that most of the village fled, for there was a long list of names, including Otto, Katharina and their three sons. My cousin explained that was the year the potato crop failed after heavy summer rains. Going to America seemed the only alternative to a meager existence on a muddy farm. She said that agricultural experts came from Berlin several years later to demonstrate newly invented techniques for draining farm fields, after which there were no more years of mass exodus from the village, regardless of how much rain fell.

Reading newspapers on the train to the Netherlands, I noted that immigration remains a divisive subject across Europe. The issue vaulted Rotterdam’s Pim Fortuyn to international fame and greatly influences the politics of Denmark, Belgium, France, Austria and other nations. Right-wing leaders spread fear about foreigners and often reap the benefits on election day. Even in the United States, a nation of immigrants, prominent figures like Pat Buchanan and Harvard University international affairs scholar Samuel Huntington try to do the same thing. In response, progressives rush to the aid of immigrants and extol the virtues of a multicultural society—which is absolutely the right thing to do.

But somewhere in these heated debates I think both sides lose sight of the fact that immigration is usually born of tragedy. Most people in most places around the world aspire to find a livelihood near where they grew up and to raise children who can do the same. There are always restless souls with such a strong urge to see the world that it must be imprinted in their DNA. But they account for only a portion of the world’s millions of immigrants. The vast majority, like my great-great grandparents, would prefer to stay home—if only they had the chance. But they don’t, due to poverty, war, economic globalization, ethnic strife or natural disasters.

It strikes me that the furor over immigration could be sensibly and humanely solved by the twenty-first century equivalent of those agricultural experts who came to my ancestors’ village. If the leaders of wealthy nations (including noisy right-wing politicians worried about newcomers not embracing Western values) would commit far more resources to economic justice and global understanding, immigration would markedly decrease and people would leave their native countries only because they wanted to, not because they had to.

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