At this moment when Washington is convulsed with debates over the most significant overhaul of immigration laws in a generation, the life and work of a man named Paul Soros, who passed last week at the age of 87, is not only instructive, but inspiring.
Born to a Jewish family in Hungary, Paul Soros fled the Nazis and escaped Russian imprisonment before coming to the United States with $17 in his pocket in 1948. The engineering firm he established a few years later came to dominate the port-building industry and help make the global economy possible.
All this would, in and of itself, make the passing of this gentle, courtly man noteworthy. But in the last chapter of his long life, Paul Soros undertook another effort that, even with him gone, leaves an important voice in the current debates.
Fifteen years ago, along with his wife Daisy, Paul Soros established a "Fellowship for New Americans" to support the graduate studies of immigrants and children of immigrants. In the New York Times obituary last week, the Fellowship was an afterthought; a single sentence in the second to last paragraph. However, in the context of the current fight over citizenship and immigration, it serves as a vital reminder.
Over the past fifteen years, 475 Americans have been awarded the Soros Fellowship. They and their families come from every corner of the globe, often escaping persecution and poverty only to find further hardship and struggle after arriving in this new land. Yet to read through the collected biographies of these men and women is to see stories not just of new Americans but of the oldest ideals of America reborn again.
These are the men and women who grew up sharing a single bedroom with their entire families and who now are brilliant physicists and physicians, United States Ambassadors and government officials, great poets and writers, pianists and violinists, CEOs of corporations and of major city public school systems, Ivy League professors and Emmy Award-winning producers, public interest lawyers and non-profit leaders.
In short, these men and women represent so much of the best of America -- our ability to serve as not only a magnet for people from all over the world, but to provide for opportunity for them and their sons and daughters.
However, their stories have sometimes become lost in the current immigration fight in Washington. Often that debate gets boiled down to nativist voices concerned with building a bigger fence with Mexico on one side and calls for greater openness to highly-skilled scientists from around the world on the other. There are few calls for further pushing open America's doors to families of tired, poor, uneducated refugees from Haiti or Cambodia or Yemen.
But Paul Soros understood that what matters most is not just degrees from institutions of higher learning, but the degree of an individual's determination and effort. That is what immigrants, even without highly valued skills in technology and prestigious diplomas, have historically brought with them to America -- whether they landed at Ellis Island or LAX. That -- much more than the $17 in his pocket -- is what Paul Soros brought with him to America 65 years ago. And an infusion of this hard-charging, spunky outlook -- even more than engineers and certainly more than fences -- is what America needs right now.
The New York Times called Soros "the invisible Soros." And it is true he was not a world figure in the manner of his younger brother, George. Yet, in his unassuming way, his work and generosity in founding and funding this fellowship for immigrants and their children makes visible the stories that have always been at the heart of the American experience. That is a powerful legacy that will live on for generations to come.