By R. MARK FREY
ST. PAUL — Autumn is here with the conclusion of the Minnesota State Fair and the beginning of a new school year. It’s time for my annual Mac computer system review that entails software upgrades, maintenance, cleanup, and disk repairs.
A techie I’m not and several hours will alas be lost to this time-consuming but essential activity. As I begin this undertaking, I’m reminded of Apple founder Steve Jobs and the approach of the second anniversary of his death in October this year. A sad demise at such a relatively young age but an extraordinary life nonetheless.
While marveling at his creation, Apple, and what he and his team accomplished in developing new and innovative technology, I can’t help but reflect even more on his devotion to a certain aesthetic in design, one devoted to simplicity, harmony, and “elegance” as he observed in the documentary film, “Triumph of the Nerds”. This ethic was influenced in no small part by his adherence to and practice of Zen Buddhist philosophy and work with his teacher, Kobun Chino Otogawa. Kobun, an ordained Zen priest, had travelled from Japan to the United States several decades ago to work at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Carmel, California before moving on to the Haiku Zen Center in Los Altos, California. His role in nurturing Jobs’ growth was immense and without doubt affected the latter’s thinking about running Apple as a company as well as the technology developed there.
I’m reminded, while further reflecting on Jobs’ death, that his biological father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, was a Syrian immigrant who first came to the United States to study at the University of Wisconsin. (Jobs’ biological mother, Joanne, was Swiss American and adoptive mother, Clara, Armenian American). But for the confluence of many factors, including several with an immigrant connection, Steve Jobs would not have become Steve Jobs and we would not have Apple today.
And, what can we say about other immigrants to the United States and their influence?
•Albert Einstein, for example, was a German-born theoretical physicist responsible for developing the general theory of relativity and considered by many to be the greatest physicist in the twentieth century.
•Ieoh Ming (I.M.) Pei was born in Canton, China and gathered such renown that he is today considered one of the United States’ greatest architects.
•Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was an Indian born astrophysicist who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his work on the evolution of dwarf stars.
•Taiwanese-born Dr. David Ho immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 and became a prominent AIDS researcher. He was named “Man of the Year” by Time magazine in 1996 for his work in that field.
•Hannah Arendt, a German-born political theorist/philosopher fled Nazi Germany for the United States where she taught and wrote for several years about the nature of power, authority, and totalitarianism.
•Film director Ang Lee was born in Taiwan and came to the United States to attend the University of Illinois and later, NYU’s film school, achieving renown for his work on such films as Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, and Life of Pi.
•Sergey Brin immigrated as a child to the United States from the former Soviet Union and, while working on his Ph.D. at Stanford, began laying the groundwork for founding Google with fellow graduate student, Larry Page.
•World renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma was born to Chinese parents living in France and immigrated with them to the United States at the age of 5.
•World class tennis player Martina Navratilova, a native of Czechoslovakia, defected to the United States in 1975 and became a US citizen in 1981.
•President Barack Obama was born and raised in Hawaii, our most diverse state in the union, and is the son of a man who was a member of the Luo tribe in Kenya and a woman who was born on the high plains of Kansas with a mixed ancestry encompassing an English, German, Swiss, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh background.
And the list goes on and on. Ask any number of people you encounter over the course of a day about their country of origin either directly or indirectly through their ancestors. The response will be resounding and rich with a description of the countries as well as stories about the journey to the States. People love to talk about how they came to be in the United States.
Yale law professor and Chinese American Amy Chua has been attributed to have observed that “once you get to the Enlightenment, the way that powers get to be hyperpowers isn’t just by conquest. It’s through commerce and innovation. Societies like the Dutch Republic and the United States used tolerance to become a magnet for enterprising immigrants.” She’s right. As the brief list above can attest, immigrants (past and present) have created the United States through their ingenuity, sweat, blood, and tears. But for the influx of peoples with new ideas, perspectives, and approaches to new and different problems, this country would be sorely lacking. It’s all the more disconcerting to hear the current immigration policy debate occasionally degenerate into a tired rant about immigrants being different and alien, and therefore suspect. As Congress is set to reconvene this month, let’s hope that its members have the will to do the right thing and pass legislation bringing about comprehensive immigration reform.
(R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has been practicing immigration law exclusively for 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family immigration, naturalization, removal, and appeals.)