Half of all Americans can trace their family history to someone who passed through Ellis Island. Other than our Native American citizens, each of us is an immigrant or descendant of immigrants.

My Irish and German ancestors came to this land of promise to escape poverty and injustice. They came to secure the American dream, if only for their children’s children. The immigrants in our communities today are coming for the exact same reasons.

I am not a politician or immigration attorney; I am a theater artist. For the past five years, musician and storyteller Dan Chouinard and I have been gathering European emigrant songs to unlock the role of music in the American immigrant experience. The result, “Steerage Song,” is running Sept. 25 through Oct. 20 at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis.

The political discourse hasn’t changed much in the past 100 years. While the countries of origin have evolved from Ireland and Italy to Somalia and Mexico, the dehumanizing language and vitriol remain the same.

Soon, our nation’s leaders will again debate immigration reform. Rather than address the immigration “problem,” it is time we reframed the discussion. John F. Kennedy wrote, “This was the secret of America: a nation of people with the fresh memory of the old country who dared to explore new frontiers …” The immigrants in our neighborhoods, schools, factories, restaurants and offices carry with them the secret of America. They are our explorers, builders and songwriters.

May we as citizens of this land of promise refresh our memories and address the topic of immigration with the same remarkable courage and radical optimism as our ancestors. May we work toward immigration reform that would do them proud.

In the words of the great American songwriter Israel Baline, an immigrant who took the name Irving Berlin — “God bless America, my home, sweet home.”


Peter Rothstein is founding artistic director of Theater Latte Da.