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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Keep our promise to the tempest-tost

President Donald Trump speaks about modernizing the immigration

President Donald Trump speaks about modernizing the immigration system in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 16, 2019, in Washington. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

My great-grandfather, Max Dobazynski, emigrated from Germany as a young man in the 1870s. He settled in New Haven, Connecticut, and worked in a local brewery. Eventually, he opened a saloon that also served lunch for workers in the area — soup and sandwiches made by my great-grandmother.

Another great-grandfather, Jacob Kuehn, also came to New Haven from Germany as a 20-year-old in 1882, and worked for 50 years in the Winchester gun factory, varnishing the stocks. His wife, Sabina, another great-grandmother, was a work-at-home mom.

None of them had much formal education or any skills that would have passed muster in a merit-based immigration system.

Yet they contributed to this country. And spawned children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren who did and are doing the same.

That’s true of my wife’s family, too, and the families of nearly everyone with whom I’ve discussed the topic. And, I’m guessing, most of you.

So, yes, I have problems with President Donald Trump’s latest proposal to overhaul our system of legal immigration.

To be clear, we absolutely need to reform the system. It has been a mess for decades, predating Trump.

We can complain about the dearth of details in his proposal last week and the way he conflates legal and illegal immigration to score points — though he also failed to propose a solution for Dreamers brought here illegally as children. We can bemoan that both Democrats and Republicans have signaled that his plan going nowhere, and that its ultimate purpose likely was to lay down a marker for the 2020 campaign.

But at some point, we’re going to have to discuss the particulars of a fair and efficient system of legal immigration. And those particulars should be shaped by principles. And the principles Trump espoused last week were troubling.

He wants to establish a merit-based system of legal immigration that would prioritize high-skilled workers. Eligibility would be determined by a scoring system that gives points for age (young is better), valuable skills, advanced education, offers of employment, and plans to create jobs.

I get it. We need more high-skilled labor, like engineers and scientists. We also need more lower-skilled labor for farms on the East End, slaughterhouses in the Midwest, and service jobs everywhere, but I digress.

The distressing part of Trump’s presentation was his description of the current system, including the awarding of some green cards by lottery, as “contrary to American values.”

The invitation to the huddled masses proudly proclaimed on the lady in New York Harbor says nothing about having to prove your worth.

The truth is that America always has offered two deals. It has welcomed those who could nurture the nation and contribute right away to building it. But it also has welcomed those who needed nurturing, who came here with only a dream and the drive to make it come true, and whose progeny have helped to keep this country strong.

That’s American values.

Noting that Trump’s grandfather, a barber, lacked high skills when he came to America as a 16-year-old in 1885 underscores Trump’s personal hypocrisy.

It’s profoundly more telling to note that merit-based immigration would have barred steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, naturalist John Muir, composer Irving Berlin, and so many others. Like Do Won Chong, who came to Los Angeles from South Korea in 1981 with a high school education and no money, worked as a coffee shop dishwasher and gas station attendant, and with his hairdresser wife, founded the Forever 21 clothing chain and became billionaires.

There never has been a score card that could measure the power of a dream.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.