COMMENTARY: Want to see grit in action? Meet our immigrants

He’s one of the finest surgeons in Dayton (I won’t embarrass him by using his name) and patients are referred to him from all over our region. And he came to the Miami Valley as a refugee from a war-torn nation in West Africa. You know, one of those places Donald Trump insulted with a term this newspaper won’t print.

Trump’s vulgarity was not just insulting to nations and people around the globe, though it surely was that; nor was it just another example of how he degrades the office on a weekly basis, though that’s true too. Rather, his comments revealed, yet again, that Trump fundamentally misunderstands virtually everything about immigration and its dynamics.

Maybe we should blame Emma Lazarus. She was a mid-19th century poet in New York City whose Jewish family immigrated to the United States well before it was the United States. If the name is familiar to you it is because of her 1883 poem “The New Colossus.” She wrote it to raise money for the pedestal for a new statue in New York harbor. The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886 and in 1903 lines from Lazarus’ poem were cast in bronze and put on its pedestal.

You know the lines: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” And at our best and most humane, America has welcomed people like these.

But Lazarus didn’t get it exactly right. While many immigrants have come here with only the clothes on their backs, plenty have come with training, skills, education, and even some capital. Lazarus’ own family had been successful in business before they brought their business across the Atlantic.

That dynamic remains true today, even though immigrants come from different countries than they did 100 years ago. Take immigrants from Nigeria, another of those “s!@#hole” countries Trump disparaged. A survey from Rice University found that 37 percent of Nigerians in the United States hold a bachelor’s degree; 17 percent hold a master’s and 4 percent earned a Ph.D. By comparison, 19 percent of “native” white Americans have a bachelor’s and a mere 1 percent a Ph.D.

These people wind up as software engineers, educators, and often the people who take care of you in the hospital — and if you want to find out what life would be like without them, take a look at England. The xenophobes there voted to leave the European Union because they didn’t like all the immigrants from other nations. Now hospitals and clinics are bracing for serious staffing shortages as doctors and nurses decide to move back to their home countries. I guess that’s how the Brexiteers propose to make British health care great again.

More than anything else, immigrants to this country carried with them ambition and drive. They still do. To believe, as Trump apparently does, that immigrants from Norway work harder and contribute more than immigrants from Nigeria, is simply wrong. Leaving your town, your language, your culture and all that is familiar to you in order to start a new life takes more determination than most of us could muster, regardless of where you come from.

Wilmot Collins came to this country 23 years ago from Liberia and settled in, of all places, Helena, Mont. He worked in the field of child protection for the state, and last November was elected mayor of his adopted city, probably the first black mayor ever elected in Montana. He is helping make America great for the future. We certainly need more people like him.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, and a regular contributor.

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