By Andrew S. Gounardes and Maria Avgitidis Pyrgiotakis*.
“Wanted – A first class shoemaker to do repair work. Must be steady and sober and able to operate Champion stitcher; good wages to the right man and steady employment the year round. No Greeks need apply. Address A. Kyser, Kearney, Neb.”
No, this ad isn’t a joke. It was published in the Omaha Daily Bee on February 9, 1916, and it is a sobering reminder of the way Greek immigrants were treated in this country when they first arrived in the United States, and more importantly, why Greek- Americans of all political beliefs should be opposed to immigration legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK) and David Perdue (R-GA) and supported by President Trump.
Under this proposal, immigration levels into the United States would be cut in half within ten years, with a higher priority given to those with advanced skills, education, or knowledge of English. The legislation would also limit the number of immigrants entering the country as refugees. Most significantly, it would sharply limit the number of immigrants who enter the United States for family or economic reasons.
Plain and simple: if this system were in place 100, 50, or even 25 years ago, the Greek community in America would not exist. For the past 100-plus years, Greeks have immigrated to the United States in search of peace, stability, and a better life for themselves and their families. They came to escape the persecutions of the Ottoman Empire.
They came to be spared the devastations of World War I. They came to be saved from the terrors of the Asia Minor Holocaust and the burning of Smyrna. They came to be spared the horrors of World War II. They came to find peace during the Greek Civil War. They came to seek safety and opportunity during the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.
They came to find economic prosperity during the stagnation of the 1980s. For 100-plus years, Greeks have sought out the light of freedom offered by Lady Liberty and came to the United States in the hopes of a better life.
They came here by the thousands and the tens of thousands. They came here legally and yes, they came here illegally. When the United States adopted immigration quotas in 1924, and would only accept 100 immigrants from Greece each year, they still smuggled themselves in by the hundreds and the thousands. How many of our grandparents arrival stories begin with someone having “jumped ship”?
And don’t forget just how unwanted we were in this country. Greek immigrants endured decades of harassment, intimidation, discrimination, and violence – all because they looked different than other Americans, spoke a different language than other Americans, and took low-paying jobs away from other Americans.
The Ku Klux Klan viewed Greek immigrants as a threat to the United States. They attacked Greek businesses, burned crosses on Greek lawns, encouraged doctors to sterilize Greek women, and beat – and in some cases even murdered – Greek immigrants. But it wasn’t just the KKK.
All across the country Greek immigrants and Greek-American citizens were discriminated against and harassed. It was not uncommon to see “No Greeks Wanted” signs in store windows or even the flogging of Greek men for having dared date a “white” woman. Greek immigrants were encouraged to prove themselves of being equal to “whites” by taking “dirty jobs” such as building railroads, cleaning sewage, laying pavement, and working in the factory.
Yet still they came, enduring injustice after injustice, all in the hopes of living a better life here. They didn’t come just for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children. They didn’t come here because they were highly educated, worked great jobs, or spoke good English.
They came here with nothing but dreams for their future. Despite all of these obstacles, Greek immigrants became among the most successful communities in American history. Within years they built businesses, conquered industries, attained high positions, and realized thousands upon thousands of American dreams.
They did all of these things while both assimilating into the culture of their adopted country and keeping true to the values of their home. Most importantly, they raised generations of proud Greek- Americans.
The immigrants of today are no different than the immigrants of yesterday. They come to the United States to find the same peace, stability, and better life that inspired our own immigrant stories. That is why it is imperative that we, as a Greek- American community, stand opposed to any effort to restrict immigration to those who already have an education, have a good job, or speak English well.
Those are not the values of our community that allowed us to become so successful within a generation’s time. Instead, we must remember the struggles of those who came before us and open our doors and open our hearts to all those whose stories mirror our own and we say: Come. You are welcome here. You can make America even greater.
*Andrew S. Gounardes is a member of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.
*Maria Avgitidis Pyrgiotakis is a member of Hellenic Professional Women.