It happens every time, I’m sure. But this was our night to see it. As two men rap six short words, a Broadway show is drawn to a halt mid-song by the audience’s response; actors and orchestra wait out the cheers before continuing.
My wife and I were celebrating our daughters’ birthdays (16 and 13) by taking them to see Hamilton, the smash-hit show whose soundtrack they’d been listening to for many months. Who would think that the perfect Sweet 16 gift would be a hip-hop Broadway show about a Founding Father?
Toward the end of Act One, the cast performs the electrifying song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down),” in which they depict the Revolutionary War’s final conquest. When Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette meet on the battlefield, they can see that victory is at hand. As they open the song, the two men use their shared experience as outsiders to America (Hamilton hails from the British West Indies, Lafayette from France) to explain their success. “We’re finally on the field. We’ve had quite a run,” Hamilton says. Lafayette responds with one word: “Immigrants,” to which Hamilton joins him in rapping, “We get the job done.”
That’s when the audience starts roaring. They know that when Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote these six words, he wasn’t just talking about the immigrants of 1781; he was, of course, arguing that immigrants are still getting the job done in America as we speak.
Debates over immigration have dominated American discourse throughout the past year, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up. As I review the news accounts of our immigration debates, I think back to my experiences as an educator. In my 19 years as a full-time teacher, I’ve worked with many immigrant students. Some were in my classroom because their parents had fled violence in countries such as Kosovo, Ethiopia, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Others were there because their parents were hoping for better opportunities than they had in Vietnam, Nigeria, South Korea, the Dominican Republic or Haiti. Still others were here because their parents had taken job opportunities, moving their families here from China, France, Egypt or Canada.
I’ve taught a Dreamer who went from the top of her high school class to babysitting because she couldn’t apply for admission to college. I’ve taught a teen who worked 12-hour graveyard shifts at a parking garage before coming to school. I’ve welcomed students into my school’s Community Service Club from Haiti, Iran, Venezuela and China, all of them looking for opportunities to serve. In recent months, I’ve watched my service club students volunteer their time at a program that serves refugee families, most of them from Syria and Iraq.
Whenever a student from a new country arrives in my high school in central Jersey, inquisitive American students pepper that student with questions: What was it like growing up in your native country? What’s the difference between there and here? How are you doing with schoolwork? Have you been to Manhattan? When it started snowing one December day a few years back, a student of mine from Egypt told me she’d never seen snow before. Without hesitation, the entire class led her outside, where she looked upward, spread out her arms and caught all the snowflakes she could.
I think the American students are so eager to learn from their immigrant peers because they understand something fundamental about this country: Immigration is a sign of our nation’s overall health. When people want to come to America, it means that our country is doing some things right. It means that the freedoms, economic opportunities and sense of community we’ve built are inspiring people from around the world. It means that our tradition of welcoming others has built us a level of global respect that is beyond measure. It means that for every individual who takes advantage of America, there are countless others who are giving America even more than they’ve gotten. So when you see a new student from another country in your class, it’s a sign that you were blessed with your place of birth. And you’re willing to share that blessing with others.
This is the way it’s gone in this New World for four centuries now. I hope that as we debate the specifics of immigration laws, we find a way to hold onto this idea, which a certain copper statue in New York Harbor tries to remind us of every day.
When the audience finishes cheering for that line in Hamilton, the song resumes. “So what happens if we win?” Hamilton asks. “I go back to France,” Lafayette says. “I bring freedom to my people if I’m given the chance.”
And that’s the other thing about immigration: When people have the chance to see America up close, it also can give them the motivation to bring that torch of liberty back home. But when we wall ourselves off from the world, that chain reaction becomes impossible.
So as the government debates continue on, I’m going to follow the instincts of my students, the words of Hamilton, and the observations I’ve made over two decades of teaching.
It really is true. Immigrants, and those who welcome them: Together, we get the job done.