Immigrants Have Always Known the Pain of Social Distancing

Native-born Americans could learn from the men and women who have started anew in a land they do not recognize.

An immigrant family at Ellis Island, New York, in 1925.
Bettman / Getty

Donald Trump’s executive order blocking thousands of people abroad from acquiring green cards is obviously xenophobic, one more round in his partisan battle against the “invisible enemy” that he blames for all of America’s ills. It is also absurd and counterproductive, particularly at a moment when so many men and women of foreign origin are proving themselves essential in the fight against the pandemic—physicians and nurses; scientific researchers; farm workers; people who produce, pack, and deliver goods. They might expect a warmer welcome for their partners, friends, and fellow migrants, some recognition of the major role that those born elsewhere play in keeping the nation secure.

Such an intolerant attitude toward millions who leave their native countries, fleeing persecution or in search of better horizons in the United States, also ignores something less tangible. At a time when social distancing is ruling our days and the world is changing in previously unimaginable ways, native-born Americans could learn from the men and women who have started anew in a land they do not recognize. Immigrants are experts in adjusting to the pain and confusion that distance can generate, even while it saves lives.

Immigrants already know how it feels to stay away from those we love, unable to visit the stores and streets that not so long ago embodied something constant and durable, the solid ground beneath our feet. Immigrants have come to terms with the distress that erodes us when the normal flow of life is missing, the rhythms and rituals that confer permanence on the maelstrom of what would otherwise be random time. Immigrants understand the agony of not being able to comfort faraway friends and family who are sick or alone or distraught. Immigrants have been gripped by anguish when funerals go on without our presence, making death even more unbearable. And immigrants are aware of the perils of how excessive grief can lead to a sort of indifference that numbs our feelings.

But immigrants have also learned that such trials create opportunities for growth. The helplessness one feels when in a strange land without family or community networks can lead to the discovery of one’s own resilience. Loneliness, the kind that consumes those now isolated from their communities, and that immigrants confront in a disconcerting environment, can help one feel more comfortable in one’s own thoughts and recollections, more self-reliant. Without the usual means of connection with family and friends—a shared meal, a long in-person chat, a hug—one finds novel ways of maintaining kinship, sometimes establishing entirely new webs of companionship. When the ability to mourn is stolen, one finds solace in the shared memories of an entire lifetime, not just what was missed at the end. And the sadness of losing what was once familiar—the childhood rivers and trees, the reminiscences embedded in each corner of a neighborhood, the songs and smiles that are no longer there, the everyday routines of a day—can turn into the joy and exhilaration that comes from the challenge of starting another life, full of revitalizing rituals and original ways of thinking.

One common, perhaps universal myth, registered in tales and legends from seemingly every civilization and tribe, is that of the hero who must leave home behind to establish a new order, who must break with the past to imagine the world afresh.

The pandemic has given us distance from our former lives, a distance that, as if we were migrants to another country, can help us emerge with new eyes to envision a different future. Having been subjected to a communal experience of bereavement and solitude, can we not use the occasion to acknowledge the country’s abject failures and discern the inequities that were always there, the scandalous and ever-increasing gap in wealth between the haves and have-nots, the ways in which we have neglected and maltreated so many of those workers who are now deemed essential? The crisis also allows us to celebrate our nation’s glorious successes, the admirable example of sacrifice and solidarity of men and women, many of them born in faraway lands, who showed love—what other word will do?—as they cared for strangers. Can that love persist beyond this dire moment and anticipate the foundations upon which a new sort of society could be built? Or, having caught a glimpse of the world as it could be, with less pollution and less gratuitous consumption and competition, having become more mindful of the misery created by the lack of justice and equality, will we then close ourselves off again, blind our souls to the tragedies afflicting those less fortunate, those who fester in jails, those who have no safety net to soften the blows of calamity, those who have left their birthlands and wait at merciless borders for a chance at a better life, those who are reviled as enemies because they are supposedly foreign?

If we decide, one by one or collectively, that the immense suffering we have endured must not be in vain, perhaps we can, by witnessing and surviving it, take a deeper journey into ourselves and into our communities. We can possibly emerge from the darkness like the mythical heroes—and unrecognized heroines—of yesteryear, embracing the lessons of this distance, one that immigrants know so well, one that whispers to us that we should never stop striving to be more tolerant and brave.