The Real Immigration Question: What Forced Your Family to Come Here?

09/01/2016 01:14 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2017

Let's face it, everyone in the United States was forced to come here for one reason or another. Like my grandmother.

After hiding in the basement with her younger siblings as the Cossacks burned their home and burning timbers fell (including one on her arm that left a lifelong scar), she immigrated to the United States at age 10 with her father. Like him, she worked. Carrying coal on her head, she contributed to the money that ultimately reunited her family in a new world. They needed to come to the U.S. - to escape waves of violence that threatened to drown out our lives as Jews in Russia.

Everyone has a story. And that's why the political debate on the global refugee crisis and on our immigration policy is so important. Because getting it right has consequences for real people. Like each of us.

My family's story is just one example of how religion has driven people to this country. In truth, religion has been an immigration issue for centuries, starting with the Puritans who wanted to practice their Christian faith differently than the Church of England.

And it is an issue that continues today. Just think of the many Christians in the Middle East, who desperately need a safe haven as their ancient communities are destroyed. Or the untold number of Yazidis, Muslims (including Shia and Sunnis), and others who need to escape violent extremists who are torturing, killing and institutionalizing sexual slavery because of their religion. And what about the European Jews considering flight from growing anti-Semitism? Or the Rohingya desperately fleeing Myanmar?

Religion is a force driving people from their homes because they want to be free to believe, and feel safe as they do so. But this is only one part of the immigration story, and how people have been forced to come here.

Another - undoubtedly the clearest source of coerced movement in U.S. history - is American slavery. Africans were stolen from their homes and forced to come to what is now the United States. As such, we cannot call them immigrants or refugees. But like the rest of us, they were forced here (though, unlike the rest of us, they never had the chance to exercise any personal choice in doing so).

Other forces that make immigration a necessity vary from the environment, to economics, to freedom to live out one's life. Think of the first peoples of North America, who apparently came from Beringia because of a changing environment. Centuries later, it was a potato famine that drove Irish to the U.S., while today's escalating natural disasters are increasingly shifting migration and immigration patterns worldwide.

Globally, people also continue to escape poverty and seek opportunity. In corrupt, violence-prone states like Honduras, where annual murders are among the highest in the world, people are fleeing. Women and children risk their futures as illegal immigrants, for the chance to live out their lives.

The issues of immigration being raised by political candidates and in our public discourse demand attention. But they also demand compassion. After all, we were once forced to come here too.