Out of Many, One
E Pluribus Unum
On a stormy Atlantic crossing in 1630, one of the first immigrants to the New World wasn’t sure he would make it. The Puritan John Winthrop knew that America was worth the risk, writing that it would be “a city upon a hill,” a place of refuge and liberty. For nearly four centuries, immigration has been—as it will always be—a salient and, at times, controversial part of the American story. A source of strength, prosperity, and hope, the flow of people across the lands and seas has also led to bouts of anxiety and fear. Every American generation, and every American president, has confronted questions about immigration, starting with the first. In 1783, George Washington articulated a guidepost for his successors: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.”
One hundred seventy-five years later, John F. Kennedy published a book called A Nation of Immigrants
, in which he explained immigration’s role in our history. “The wisest Americans have always understood the significance of the immigrant,” he wrote. “Among the ‘long train of abuses and usurpations’ that impelled the framers of the Declaration of Independence to the fateful step of separation was the charge that the British monarch had restricted immigration.” The document signed on July 4, 1776, complained that the tyrannical king “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.”
President Ronald Reagan devoted a portion of his final speech at the White House to immigration. “This, I believe, is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness,” he said. “We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world. And by doing so, we continuously renew and enrich our nation.” It was President Reagan who, remembering John Winthrop’s brave passage and inspiring words, taught us to think of our country as a “shining city upon a hill”—a beacon of hope in a world of shadow.
In an attempt to reform what had over time become a broken and outdated immigration system, I spoke to the nation in 2006 from the Oval Office.
“We’re a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws,” I said. “We’re also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”
Yet for all our noble intentions of being a welcoming nation, some throughout the years have reacted negatively, and sometimes harshly, to immigrants. At times, immigration has inspired fear—fear of open borders, fear of job losses, fear of cultural degradation. Presidents have had a choice: to soothe those fears or to stoke them. History shows that the latter route should be the road less taken.
In the fog of war in 1798, when the national existence seemed at stake, John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, increasing the waiting period for applicants to become citizens and giving the President unchecked power to deport foreigners at will. To Adams and the Federalists, saving America required suspending its spirit. Many disagreed, believing that liberty must be sacred, not seasonal. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison called the bill “a monster that must forever disgrace its parents.”
Fifty years later, the sight of Europeans fleeing revolution and famine stirred up what I call the three “isms” that pop up in our country from time to time: nativism, protectionism, and isolationism. This time, they took the form of an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant political party that came to be called the Know-Nothings.
An 1882 law barring any “lunatic” or “idiot” from the country was expanded in 1891 to send anyone considered sick back home. As the historian Jon Meacham has written, the inward-looking, shortsighted fits continued “with the Chinese Exclusion Act under Chester Arthur, and with anarchists under Teddy Roosevelt, and with punitive immigration quotas after the Bolshevik Revolution on through the 1920s and ’30s (a period of ‘America First’), and with refugees from the communist bloc in the early 1950s.”
Today, Americans rightly worry about the consequences of a fast-changing world and a broken immigration system. Unfortunately, as in the past, fear seems to dominate the discourse. In the process, we tend to forget the contributions immigrants make to our nation’s cultural richness, economic vitality, entrepreneurial spirit, and renewed patriotism. In 2019, I decided to write this book to help us remember.
Growing up in Texas, I learned about our long history (and long border) with Mexico and the contributions Mexican-Americans have made to our state and country. As governor, I worked with Mexican authorities and honored the Latino traditions in our state. I often said that family values did not stop at the Rio Grande River—that the vast majority of immigrants who crossed our southern border were hardworking people trying to provide for their families by working jobs that America needed them to. I saw that our state’s economy couldn’t grow without them. I also saw how, oftentimes, undocumented immigrants were exploited by ruthless smugglers, or “coyotes,” who preyed on the desperation of those seeking a better life. When I ran for President, I said that new Americans are not to be feared as strangers; they are to be welcomed as neighbors.
Throughout my life and career, I have had the privilege of seeing the profound and positive influence of newcomers. In these pages are forty-three portraits of immigrants I have come to know, accompanied by their stories. I painted people who escaped danger and difficulty, and people who came to pursue opportunities that didn’t exist in their native countries. I painted the portraits of people who, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, never lost faith in their future. Many have realized the blessings of our free economy and created jobs for Americans. Those who have succeeded here have, in turn, helped others. In telling their stories, I also describe the great compassion of Americans they met along the way. I write about citizens and organizations who help newcomers resettle, and I talk about the promise of America.
Some of the people depicted are famous—athletes like Dirk Nowitzki and Annika Sörenstam, business leaders like Indra Nooyi and Hamdi Ulukaya, and public servants like Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. Others are lesser known but equally important. One of the first stories is about one of the first immigrants I ever knew. Paula Rendon came from Mexico to help my parents with our household and over time became like a second mother. Jeanne Celestine Lakin escaped genocide in Rwanda; Florent Groberg came from France and earned the Medal of Honor in Afghanistan.
Many in this book are participants in Bush Institute programs. I’ve included several graduates of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, or PLS—a collaboration between my presidential center and those of President Clinton, my father, and President Johnson that teaches leadership through the lens of presidential decision-making. I wrote about Kim Mitchell, who was adopted as an infant by an American serviceman after her mother was killed in the Vietnam War. She went on to serve honorably in the United States Navy and graduated from the Bush Institute’s Veteran Leadership Program. The first story in the book is of Joseph Kim, a recipient of our North Korea Freedom Scholarship. As a young boy, Joseph survived alone on the streets of North Korea as a beggar and overcame unspeakable odds to escape to America and contribute to his new land.
As I researched the stories of these unique men and women from thirty-five different countries, consistent themes emerged: their resilience and perseverance, their patriotism, their generosity, and perhaps most of all, their gratitude. To a person, they expressed profound thanks for being here and determination to make the most of every opportunity. That’s what I hope readers come away with—a renewed sense of gratitude for the freedoms we sometimes take for granted, and for these remarkable people who choose to live among us. I regret that I wasn’t able to honor more from countries like Italy, Japan, Australia, England, and Brazil, whose expatriates make up the fabric of America.
I delayed the publication of this book so as to avoid the politics of a presidential election year. I did not want the people I painted to become exploited politically. While I recognize that immigration can be an emotional issue, I reject the premise that it is a partisan issue. It is perhaps the most American of issues, and it should be one that unites us. After all, we are a nation of immigrants. As I have often said, at its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation. It says something about our country that people all around the world are willing to leave their homes and their families to risk everything and come here. Becoming an American citizen is challenging, time-consuming, and competitive—as it should be. The immigration system is also confusing, costly, and inefficient, and needs to be fixed.