I can’t claim to be an expert on American politics but I have followed with real interest the Presidency of Barrack Obama. Firstly, in 2008, with incredulous enthusiasm and, during the last Presidential campaign, with a mixture of dread and hope. There was so much excitement after his first election that people were bound to get disappointed especially as the man had to lead his country through the worst economic climate since the Great Depression while also finding a path round the minefield laid for him by the newly elected right wing Tea Party Republicans. I learnt about the Boston Tea Party at school but even so, when I hear the phrase tea party, I tend to think a lot of air-headed small talk conducted over teacups. Maybe that’s really where that Republican name came from. Well, they aren’t so happy these days and the Republican Party, after counting their votes at the last election, has begun to see that those Tea Party folk were not really their friends either. I, of course, don’t have a vote in American elections, I’m British and my vote, like many others at the last election, floated in mid-air when the nation decided it didn’t really want any of the politicians on offer so we ended up with the wobbly and ineffectual Conservative/Liberal-Democrat Coalition government that is leading the UK towards an unprecedented triple dip recession while it furthers a petulant and damaging foreign policy that manages to combine grandiose dreams above its station with the narrowest of blinkered vision about the country’s relationship with its friends and neighbours. Maybe seeing the wreckage of our last election is why I took President Obama’s re-election to a second term so seriously. I too had my disappointments with his first administration but, I wanted the American people to give the man a chance and to see just what he could do when he knows he can’t stand a third time.
His immigration policy speech last night was just the kind of thing that raised my hopes. He may have kept the details to a minimum but he made it quite clear that action was going to be taken with or without bipartisan support (and the newly chastened Republican Party seems to be looking for anywhere where bipartisanship can redeem their tarnished reputation as the nasty guys). As with the gun debate and in his support for equal rights to marry, the President is not going to let this go. Immigration is an emotive issue in the USA, as it is here in Europe, but it will remain a problem until politicians are brave enough to sort out the confusions, inequalities absurdities and tragedies involved when large numbers of people want to move from one country to another regardless of the law. His vision for a change in the American Immigration system remains tough on border control (he has deported more illegal immigrants than any other American president) but he is not anti-foreigner like those Tea Party radicals or like some of our anti-Immigration lobbies in the UK who have just decided that they don’t like Roumanians and Bulgarians because they might start coming to Britain as the European Union expands. Obama is certainly not, like some of Britain’s keep Britain British brigade, racist either. He is ideally positioned, as America’s first black President, to see the inspirational side of immigration as much as its many problems and tragedies. He said, last night: ‘It’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of “us” versus “them.” And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of “us” used to be “them.” We forget that. It’s really important for us to remember our history. Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you.’
Like so many Europeans, my family has a branch that emigrated to the USA in the 1850s in search of a new life and new opportunities. One of them, John Addison, who arrived, as a child, with his parents, applied for American citizenship as a young man at the beginning of the American Civil War so that he could enlist in the Union Army – he served under General Sherman until peace was declared. He was just one of millions of American immigrants who committed to a new nation and became an integral part of it and, in his own way, helped to build a country where slaves could be freed and their descendants could one day become president.
My first job, here in Britain, was working for the now legendary bilingual (English and French) literary quarterly magazine ADAM International Review, employed as a general literary dog’s-body by its quixotic, volatile and inspiring editor, the Roumanian immigrant, Miron Grindea who, as a Roumanian Jew, settled in London in 1939 and made it his home for the rest of his life – a mutually enriching experience for him and his newly adopted country.
My time working with an internationally-minded bohemian and his circle of often persecuted artists and writers was an enriching experience for me too as a young man, at around the same age my ancestor was when he fought in the American Civil War. I learnt that I was more than just a product of the country of my birth even if I didn’t share John Addison’s bravery. When I hear all this talk about preventing Roumanians and Bulgarians coming to Britain, I think of Miron Grindea and that great tragedy that spread across mainland Europe in the 1930s and 40s that meant that he was one of the lucky survivors from a time when feelings of Nationalism erupted in hatred and genocide. I like to think that my immigrant ancestors enriched their new country as much as hundreds of years of immigration as enriched Britain. That is not the immigration problem, the problem is making immigration fair, controlled and equitable. President Obama may have a lesson for us all. I hope so.