The words to “God Bless America” were written by Irving Berlin 100 years ago.
Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, was a soldier during World War I. He put the song aside for 20 years, but as the world watched Hitler gain power, he decided he had to work on a peace song.
He changed a few of the words and asked Kate Smith to sing it on her CBS radio hour on Nov. 11, 1938. Berlin’s mother, who was grateful to arrive here from Russia in 1893, often repeated the phrase, “God bless America.” If Berlin and his family had not been able to move here, they might not have survived.
Many Jewish families fled pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1890s to early 1900s. Until the Immigration Act of 1924, a large number of those families came here.
As we get ready to celebrate our Independence Day on July 4, I can’t help but think about all the immigrants that have come here to escape war, famine or persecution.
I was born in 1951, the year Pete Seeger recorded “This Land is Your Land.” It was practically my family’s national anthem. Woody Guthrie wrote that song when he heard Kate Smith singing Berlin’s song.
Ever since Trump became president, I have been attending a monthly political group that finds ways to resist and challenge his decisions. It has been especially disturbing to hear about undocumented immigrants being detained and sent back to their birth country. It reminds me of my teenage cousin who spent almost five years in a displaced persons’ camp after World War II as she and her son waited to find a new home.
A few months ago, I sat with 150 people in one of these meetings and listened to a young undocumented woman, who is part of the sanctuary movement, speak about how her father had just been detained. He has been in this country for more than 20 years, raised his family, and worked at night driving a cab.
He was in a minor accident, and when the police were called, they saw he had no driver’s license. ICE was contacted, and they put him in a detention center.
Our political group raised money to help pay for a lawyer, and we helped his daughter contact our congressman and other local politicians.
When our group gathered in May, the young woman was sitting in the front row with a few other people. At the beginning of the meeting, Eileen O’Connor — one of the founders of the group — asked her to come up to the microphone with her family. She introduced her father, and she explained how she was able to help him come home until his hearing in October.
He talked about how he and the people who were being detained were terribly frightened by the detention center. He old us some of them, who had no family support, committed suicide rather than go back to their birth country.
He thanked us for our support, and we were moved to tears.
When the family finished speaking, Eileen asked them to remain in front of the room with her, and the words to “This Land is Your Land” were flashed on the screen. I had been singing that song for more than 65 years, but got too choked up to sing the chorus’s last line: “This land was made for you and me.”
The members of the family beamed as everyone sang.
We must find a way to tell the world we do not support President Trump’s stand against immigrants.
The people who have come here fled here for their safety and a better life, like Irving Berlin’s family and my relatives did more than 100 years ago.
Undocumented immigrants want to be American citizens, and they would proudly wave an American flag.
When a ship flies a flag upside down, it indicates they are in distress. Until we can be a nation that welcomes all immigrants, we are like a ship about to sink.
On July 4, would you be willing to fly the flag upside down to show your concern for our country?