By Juhi Varma
Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts is the title of a new book release by Malden’s Immigrant Learning Center [ILC]. The book—a collection of eleven essays by historians, lawyers, and anthropologists—examines 11 different ethnic groups and highlights that despite facing discrimination each group went on to assimilate and make significant contributions to America. The cover shows a photo collage of famous immigrants, including Albert Einstein, Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, Nicola Tesla, Sidney Poitier, and many others.
ILC President Diane Portnoy spent two years working on Immigrant Struggles, Immigrant Gifts with Barry Portnoy and Charlie Riggs. The introduction, which was written by Diane Portnoy, gives a brief history on immigration in the United States. She talks about how each group, going all the way back to the revolution when the immigrants were Germans, had to deal with nativist rhetoric. “People always have negative things to say about immigrants, but look at what they had to face and look what they went on to achieve,” said Portnoy. “Today they’re talking about Mexicans, Muslims, Haitians the same way; there’s no reason to believe that immigrants today will be any different, we say exactly the same things—they’re dirty, they’re different, they’re here to live on welfare or take our jobs (which, by the way, isn’t true), they don’t pay taxes. Hopefully, this will help [inform] the debate about immigrants and immigrant reforms.”
Portnoy, herself the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, came to the United States at age three, when the US passed the Displaced Person’s Act at the end of World War II. She grew up in Malden, and founded the ILC in November of 1992 to provide free English lessons to immigrant and refugee adults.
When asked what prompted her to start this book, Portnoy responded, “I’m an immigrant myself. When 9/11 happened, suddenly our ILC students were afraid to come to school, because people would yell terrible things at them—‘go back to your own country,’ ‘we don’t want you here,’ ‘you’re a terrorist!’ People who knew the work I did suddenly started saying that the problem with this country was immigrants, and I was stunned, because I know what immigrants are—their strength, courage, ability to take risks.”
This prompted Portnoy to start the ILC Public Education Institute to inform Americans about the economic and social contributions of immigrants to American society.
“We do a lot, including commissioning research,” said Portnoy. “My husband and I would be in the car listening to the radio, and I’d say ‘I can’t believe so and so said this, it’s making me crazy.’ My husband, who’s a bit of a history buff, would comment that it was very similar to discrimination which took place is this or that historical period. It became clear that nothing’s changed.”
The book’s contributors are Wayne A. Cornelius, Nancy Foner, Anna Gressel-Bacharan, David W. Haines, Luciano J. Iorizzo, Robert M. Secker, Alexander Kitroeff, Erika Lee, Deborah Dash Moore, David M. Reimers, and William G. Ross.
“We do some things right and some things wrong, but America’s always a beacon of hope and opportunity.” said Portnoy.