Immigrant eyes

Over the past few years we’ve seen a lot of anger. We’ve seen a seemingly sane country cut itself off from mainland Europe and we’ve seen a seemingly beneficent border police force turn angry. We’ve heard that immigrants steal our jobs, kill our people and bring in drugs and terror.

This is wrong.

On the pro-side we know that immigrants, as a whole, commit less crime than U.S.-born citizens. On the side against immigration we get a few vignettes of terror that pretend to paint a whole picture. Further, we must understand the plight of the worker in America and Britain. Immigrants do take jobs and the white-collar world can’t see the effects. Antonio Garcia-Martinez, author of Chaos Monkeys, said it best when he wrote:

Blue Staters ridicule working-class Red Staters’ support for Trump, and his rhetoric around building a wall. Of course, white collar workers already have their wall: it’s called the H1 visa, and it means they don’t have to compete with every graduate of IIT or Tsinghua for a job. Imagine for a moment if there were a scrum of diligent and capable Chinese and Indian engineers in front of Facebook and Google (as there is a scrum of Mexicans outside every Home Depot in the US), each ready to take the job for less than the coddled American inside stuffing his face with the free ribs. What would that engineer’s opinion on illegal immigration be then?

What the Red Staters are asking for is essentially the same guarantees around a limited flow of outside labor that the Blue Staters already enjoy.

As always, it’s not enlightened ideals that define political opinions, it’s power and self-interest. White collar workers have the views they do because they’ve already gotten theirs, and they don’t care about the high-school-educated plumber or construction worker in Louisville or Des Moines, who sees that Mexican outside Home Depot (rightly) as a threat to his livelihood.

Everyone is right and no one is. High tech is blind to the plight of the migrant worker and depends on the largesse of governments for programmers and outsourced data centers. Everyone, from the guy in a truck at Home Depot to the woman in an Uber on the Golden Gate, must take stock and try to help.

Ultimately immigration is a change agent and a necessity. Populations age. Cultures shift. New technologies will fix old failures. And throughout it all the sane and accepted migration of the skilled and unskilled, refugees and expats, will get us through. To blame our ills on those different from us is a failure of humanity and this failure has repeated itself over and over again since the Dark Ages. We fear — but need — the Other. That fear must be excised.

In the end I can only recommend one or two things to fix this in the short term. First, understand your own roots and your own path and try to help others in your same course. My grandparents were Polish and Hungarian. I’ve tried, in my own way, to boost those countries as much as I can, knowing full well that their economies and ecosystems are in full bloom and they don’t need much help. But what they need is investment and attention. I can give them that.

We can also help spread the vision of entrepreneurship throughout the world. A few weeks ago I met a group of Cuban entrepreneurs who were visiting Denver and they stopped in at Boomtown to see what the accelerator experience was like. These were men and women who, despite the odds and political machinations, were building their country’s internet infrastructure. They loved seeing how the accelerator helped young companies grow and I think their eyes were opened to new possibilities. They’ll be attending Disrupt in May, as well. It was the least I could do for them.

But the thing that struck me most was how similar they were to every entrepreneur I meet from Zagreb to Alameda. All had a clearness of vision, all were ready to work and change. All were ready to move forward despite all odds. They aren’t here to steal jobs, they’re here to make jobs. They’re not here to break the body politic but to strengthen the good and cleave away the bad. They are here to fix things at home and abroad.

They are not immigrants. They are people. They move from place to place, bringing some bad but more good. They will never stop. They will never give up. It’s best to harness that energy than to stifle it.

I was at a wedding in Pittsburgh a few years ago when I heard a story from an older friend who heard about my Polish roots. Three girls, eight, 10, and 14, came over from Warsaw by way of Gdansk in about 1900. They sailed with their father, a blacksmith and drinker, and arrived in New York shaken and sick. They took an overland route to Coal Country and settled outside of Pittsburgh. Their father went to work in the mines and the girls went to school. One afternoon, when they came home, their father was gone.

He had gone back to Poland, leaving the girls alone. They didn’t know why he left — he had a half-baked plan to bring his wife over — and he didn’t leave much money or even a note. The girls took jobs sewing and cleaning and the oldest took care of the middle child who took care of the youngest. All went to school when they could. The neighborhood, made up mostly of immigrants, tried to helped and the girls made a life for themselves. Unbeknownst to them, their parents died back in Poland, which is why their letters home went unanswered. It is a tale of penury, perdition and fear, of babes in the woods and, potentially, failure.

But it didn’t end in a nightmare.

The girls grew and married. They built lives in a new world into which they were thrust, like babies dipped howling into the baptismal font in Pittsburgh’s Kościół Matki Boskiej, the shock of the future coming over them in a rush. And they made it. Their father, for all his faults, knew they would be safe. The world where his daughters now lived was not nearly as dangerous as the world he left and the potential for survival was far greater. He trusted his girls to the tide of immigration and he was not wrong.

“That was my grandmother, the youngest one,” said my friend. He is now an engineer in Pittsburgh, an American.

We forget that we all came from afar, with nothing. And we cannot fear those who follow behind us.