Especially during times of strong anti-immigration sentiment, many Americans forget something important. Aside from indigenous peoples in North America and the Africans forced into the slave trade, everyone in the country has an immigrant ancestor. Although there were British colonies such as Jamestown during the 1600s, the immigration boom happened between 1870 and 1900 when more than 12 million people arrived by boat. Most European immigrants decamped onto Ellis Island in New York City, while Asian immigrants often landed on the West Coast during the Gold Rush. Some Americans are unaware that Chinese immigrants were primarily responsible for building the transcontinental railroad — a transport method instrumental to expanding the central and western U.S. Other immigrants, often those from Germany and Scandinavia, claimed land in states like Nebraska and Kansas for farming and livestock, while immigrants from Ireland often stayed on the eastern seaboard. Many famous immigrants made America great — and even influenced the world.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author
Elie Wiesel was born in Romania in 1929. He studied to be a rabbi until he and his family were placed in Nazi death camps. Fortunately, Wiesel survived Auschwitz, as did two of his sisters. He wrote the acclaimed memoir, “Night,” about his time there. Wiesel was also an activist, speaking out against persecution and injustice, and he played a large part in developing the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. In 1986, he received the Nobel Prize. He died in 2016, aged 87.
Champion of the Hospice movement, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Born in Switzerland, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wanted to study medicine. She left home at 16 and worked various jobs to support herself before enrolling in medical school, graduating in 1957. The following year, Elisabeth married fellow medical student Emanuel Ross, and they moved to the U.S. for their internships. Dr. Kübler-Ross disliked how terminal patients were treated and began to focus on what she called life’s greatest mystery — death. By the 1970s, she was a champion of the hospice movement. Dr. Kübler-Ross wrote more than 20 books on death and dying.
Thanks for the memories, Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope
Bob Hope was a household name for most of the 20th century. His family came to America from London when he was four, and he grew up in Cleveland. Multi-talented, Hope could sing, dance, act, and make people laugh, and he starred in more than 70 movies. In 1941, Hope began touring for the United Services Organization (USO) to entertain active troops. In all, he made 57 tours. Hope died in 2003 at age 100.
Mellow as his cello: meet Yo-Yo Ma
World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma was born in Paris, France, emerging as a prodigy performing at age four. Both of his parents were classical musicians, and they moved to New York City when Ma turned 7. He attended The Julliard School and Harvard. Since then, he has played internationally and has issued more than 90 albums. Ma remains humble and funny, a gift to America and the world.
Meet the first Somali-American congresswoman, Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) was two years old when her family fled Somalia’s civil war, spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the U.S. In 2019, Rep. Omar was sworn in as the first African refugee and the second Muslim-American woman elected to Congress. She is a member of “The Squad,” a group of six Democratic representatives elected in 2018 who embrace progressive views. She also participates in the Congressional Black Caucus. Omar is married to political consultant Tim Mynett.
Carlos Santana, guitar wizard
Born in 1947 in Jalisco, Mexico, Carlos Santana came to the U.S. in the 1960s. The talented guitarist became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1965, later enjoying breakout fame at 1969’s Woodstock with his eponymous band. The band’s sound mixed rock with Latin and African beats, percussion, jazz, salsa, and tunes. He and his original bandmates earned a place in the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, several years after Santana’s breakout hit “Supernatural.” Santana lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, with his second wife, Cindy.
Call her Madame: meet Helena Rubinstein, entrepreneur
Helena Rubinstein immigrated to Australia from Poland after refusing a marriage her Orthodox father had arranged. Australians admired her flawless complexion and asked for her secret — it was a beauty cream her mother had created. Fueled by success, Rubinstein opened salons in London and Paris, and she moved to America when World War I began. As her beauty business grew into a worldwide cosmetics enterprise, she became immensely wealthy thanks to her marketing savvy. She died in 1965 at 94.
The Oscar goes to Haing Noor: physician, actor, and author
Born in Cambodia, Haing Somnang Ngor was a surgeon and obstetrician. He survived the Khmer Rouge’s prison camps and the loss of his wife, and he escaped to Thailand after the Pol Pot regime collapsed. Ngor immigrated to the U.S. in 1980. He is best known for his portrayal of Cambodian journalist and refugee Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, a role that earned him an Academy Award in 1985. In 1996, he was murdered outside his Los Angeles apartment.
And the answer is … Alex Trebek
Alex Trebek was born in Sudbury, Ontario, to a Ukrainian father and a French-Canadian mother. Young Alex spoke both English and French at home, and in 1961, he graduated from the University of Ottawa with an interest in broadcasting. His first opportunity was as an English-language newsreader for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1973, Trebek moved to the U.S. to pursue more work, where he found success hosting game shows, music shows, and more. In 1984, he began hosting the revival of Jeopardy! In 1988, he became a U.S. citizen. He led Jeopardy! until his death in 2020.
Meet Mother Cabrini, patroness of immigrants
Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1880 and went to America at the request of the Pope to minister to Italian immigrants. She reached Ellis Island at age 43 and, in the years after, founded 67 different schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Mother Cabrini passed away in 1917 and was canonized in 1946. A shrine to her memory stands outside Denver, Colorado, where she did much of her ministry.