kentucky voices

Ky. Voices: Kentucky culture rooted in opportunities for immigrants

July 26, 2013 

By Kiran Bhatraju

In the late 1920s, an Italian immigrant with a funny last name arrived in the heart of Appalachia to join the thousands of Scots-Irish who found good wages in the coalfields.

He could have moved to New York or Chicago, but he instead came to Perry County to work as a stonemason.

His arrival was not uncommon. Appalachian and American history is defined by immigrants searching for liberty and prosperity. And even though this particular Italian left his home to emigrate to a land where they spoke a foreign language, he never turned back. The mountains became his new home.

Just one short generation later, his Italian-American son would open a convenience store in Bulan, and his grandson would be the first in the family to graduate from college.

That same grandson would go on to medical school, come back to the mountains to practice among the poorest in the state and eventually become Kentucky's 54th lieutenant governor.

That funny last name? Mongiardo. And their Appalachian immigrant story is just one of many that echo across America.

Our culture celebrates underdogs and second chances, but the recent debate over immigration reform has been missing this narrative. Too often our leaders opposed to reform demonize immigrants and claim they are a drain on the system.

But if opponents took the time to reflect on their own family history, they would understand that this couldn't be further from the truth.

Sen. Mitch McConnell's family first came over from Ireland, and Sen. Rand Paul's paternal great grandfather emigrated from Germany.

Not only would increased legal immigration keep our nation culturally strong, it would provide a badly needed boost to our pocketbooks.

Forbes recently reported that 40 percent of Fortune 500 businesses were started by immigrants or their children.

And closer to home, the Immigration Policy Center reports that immigrants in Kentucky own businesses with sales and receipts topping $3 billion and employing more than 23,000.

Another study estimates that Kentucky could see up to $23 million in increased state revenue should our congressional delegation help pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Border security is an important part of the debate to ensure legal immigration, but in an era of austerity it shouldn't overshadow the economic benefits comprehensive reform could provide. This nation has for a long time fostered an incredible ability to nurture, assimilate, and absorb people from across the world. It's one of the many reasons America continues to recruit the best and brightest.

It's also a reminder, as with the Mongiardos, that in only a short amount of time "other" can become common, and "them" can become "us."

Globally, nations envy our cultural and economic resilience, and we shouldn't cede that territory. We need to pass an effective, legal immigration process to fix our broken system, and maintain the most spirited part of the American Dream.

Kiran Bhatraju, a Pikeville native, lives in Boston and is author of Mud Creek Medicine: Eula Hall and her Fight for Appalachia due out in November. His father emigrated from India in the 1980s.

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