A Nation of Immigrants | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Nation of Immigrants

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Amber Helsel

Ever since I can remember, other cultures have always fascinated me. When I was in kindergarten, we had a World Fair, and I vividly remember being excited about the China and Mexico exhibits. My favorite field trips in elementary schools were the ones where we got to see "The Majesty of Spain" and "Splendors of Versailles" at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion, where the Arts Center of Mississippi is located today. More recently, I got to do something really cool in relation to the culture of Mexico: I decorated sugar skulls for a story in this issue (see page 22).

I think part of my fascination has to do with the fact that I don't actually know my own ancestry. I don't know where I come from. While I'm quick to say that my last name, Helsel, is German, the truth is I have no idea. Ancestry.com says it also originated from countries such as Bohemia, England, Norway and France, so I don't know which branch of the tree I come from.

The last name on my mom's side of the family, Fletcher, originates from countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Germany, so the same goes with that last name. My last name, Helsel, most likely isn't even spelled the way it should be. When coming to the U.S., many immigrants changed their last names to better assimilate into the culture, so I can't really know it's original spelling.

Though I don't know where I come from, one thing is clear: At some point in my ancestry, my family migrated to this country. Like many families that came to live in this state and in this country, they were immigrants. They came to America in search of a better life, as many families have and continue to do.

In some small way, my family helped contribute to the culture of this country, as all the people from different backgrounds and cultures have. That's how I see the United States, and how I think everyone should start seeing it again: as a melting pot of cultures. If we do a little research and work toward understanding, we can learn more about the blend of cultures that makes our country great and hopefully learn more about ourselves in the process.

That's why I also find Donald Trump's idea of building a wall (and making Mexico pay for it) so alarming—and ridiculous.

Sure, I understand wanting to tighten border security. The world isn't really a safe place, so it makes sense to err on the side of caution. But I don't think the solution is to keep people out. I concede that I don't know what the exact solution is, but I know that building a wall isn't the best option. How about making it easier for people to come into this country legally? How about not spouting unfounded statistics falsely indicating that illegal immigrants are rapists, criminals, possible terrorists and other assorted "bad hombres"?

Many studies have shown that far fewer illegal immigrants commit crimes than people born in the United States do. 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics says that immigrants make up 5 percent of the total prison population, and 2014 data from the Migration Policy Institute shows that 13.3 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. Census data from 2012 shows that 59,303 Mississippi residents were foreign-born citizens, out of the state's population of 2,984,926. That's about 2 percent of the population, and that number has grown by almost 20,000 since the year 2000.

It still seems like a small number, right? But if you think about it, even if by descent, most of us are immigrants. I am. My apartment neighbors are. Jackson Free Press staff members are. People you meet on the street are. It's an inarguable fact that immigrants built the United States, whether it be the founding fathers or the slaves that were forced to come here and work for free. It's just that some of us have been here longer than others, so we forget where we came from. Or in many cases, we just don't know, and some of us don't want to find out.

But I do. I wish I knew who my ancestors were, partially so I could learn who they are, but also because I'd like to honor them. If they hadn't come to this country in search of a better life, I wouldn't have been able to do so much in my lifespan. I mean, I'm the first person in my immediate family to receive a four-year college degree, and at 27, I'm in a management position at the Jackson Free Press. It's been a pretty good life so far.

I wouldn't have even been born had it not been for my ancestors deciding to come to the United States, and at some point, migrating to Louisiana and Mississippi. I'd like to think that I have my roots to thank for how far I've gotten. My ancestors were probably farmers, so I'm guessing my family's work ethic has been passed down for generations.

To be honest, I'm jealous of people who can connect with their cultural heritage—the African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa, the Mexicans who celebrate Dia de los Muertos, and especially the people who are first-generation American citizens. They get to toe the line between their own culture and ours. It's not an easy path to walk, I'd imagine, but at least they know who they are.

At this point, and I don't think I'm alone in this, I can only guess where I came from and hope that, someday, I'll find the answers. And I also think learning about other people's cultures—celebrating immigrants, instead of trying to keep them out—helps us understand each other better.

I have one thing to ask, and it's a question I ask myself every time I hear someone talking about the need for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico: What would Jesus do? I bet he wouldn't shut people out. He would welcome them with open arms, and that's what we need to start doing. There has to be a way to keep people safe without keeping out people who are seeking a better life or asylum from something terrible.

Assistant Editor Amber Helsel likes to cook, eat, make art and pet cats. Pottermore sorted her into Gryffindor, but she knows that her true house is Slytherin. Email her story ideas at [email protected].

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