Amid a backdrop of deportations and plans to expand a border wall between the United States and Mexico, dozens gathered Tuesday at the state Capitol in Hartford for another purpose: to celebrate all that immigrants have done for America.
The event’s keynote speaker, Yale School of Public Health Professor Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, noted that he, too, was an immigrant, leaving his native Mexico more than two decades ago for a new life in the United States. He went on to earn advanced degrees and today is recognized as a leading public health expert in nutrition, childhood health, diabetes and obesity. Among other projects, he is currently working to expand the practice of breastfeeding around the world, an approach with health benefits for infant and mother alike.
With immigrants from around the world packed into the Capitol’s ornate Old Judiciary Room for the 20th annual Connecticut Immigrant Day, Pérez-Escamilla said that he and his family have benefitted enormously from their lives in the United States, while at the same time remaining committed to Mexico and making sure that his sons were raised in a bilingual and bicultural environment.
Pérez-Escamilla went on to say that social injustice on a massive scale around the world is what prompts many people to leave the land of their birth, or to send their children, in order to begin life anew elsewhere.
“What the vast majority of people want is for their children to have a better life and to be able to grow in a nurturing and safe environment,” he said.
Many immigrants and their children who come to the United States go on to make enormous contributions. He mentioned Elie Wiezel, activist and philosopher; Steve Jobs, the inventor behind Apple products; singer Gloria Estefan; writer Isabel Allende; neuroscientist and journalist Sanjay Gupta; as well as a host of top athletes in the nation’s professional sports leagues. In 2016, the United States had six Nobel Prize winners, all of whom were immigrants.
On a personal note, he urged those in attendance and beyond to discontinue phrases such as “illegal immigrant” and “alien” when discussing people who have come to the United States in search of a new beginning. “I simply can’t accept that any human being is illegal,” he said.
Pérez-Escamilla and 14 other people, from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Ghana, Cuba and Vietnam, were recognized by the event’s sponsor, the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition, for their contributions to the state. Pérez-Escamilla also received a citation from U.S. Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-2nd District, for his professional accomplishments and ongoing contributions.
Denise Merrill, secretary of the state, told the story of her grandmother, born in Ireland, who moved to America in the 1920s. She was poor upon arrival, but worked hard, bought land and eventually prospered.
Affection for one’s native culture does not deny affection for America or strain America’s national identity; it adds to it, she said.
“We are united in our feeling that we are all immigrants,” Merrill told the gathering. “We are a better country for it.”
She closed by urging all in attendance to exercise one of their most fundamental rights as Americans: Voting. “Exercise it often,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman also shared her family’s story of coming to America for opportunity and a better life.
“Our country is better and stronger because of diversity,” she said. “Thank you for making [Connecticut] a better state because you are here.”
Chris George, executive director of New Haven-based IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services), served as the event’s master of ceremonies. The reception was punctuated with refugee children that IRIS works with singing classic American songs such as America the Beautiful and This Land is Your Land and ended with a multicultural feast featuring a rich variety of ethnic dishes.