Immigration has pretty much always been a hot topic in the US. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in 1798, to make it harder for immigrants to vote but a lot easier for them to get deported. Now in 2016, president-elect Donald Trump promises to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. Most of the debate is over how welcoming our country should be, and just who we should welcome in. Still, as cliché as it might sound, we are a country of immigrants (who might have killed off the original tenants by giving them smallpox-infested blankets. Yeah, not our finest moment).
No matter what you believe about immigration policy, it’s undeniable that immigrants have had a profound impact on the development of our country. Here are nine awesome, foreign-born people who got us to where we are now.
1. Alexander Hamilton
Born on the Island of Nevis in 1757, Hamilton had a rough go of it pretty early on. By the time he was 14, his father had abandoned him, his mother had died, and he was basically running a trading company as its head clerk. After a hurricane effed up his island, he sent a letter to the local newspaper describing the wreckage. The community was so amazed at his talent that they scraped together enough money to send him to New York and get an education he never would have seen in the Caribbean.
From that point on, he pretty much crushed it. Starting out as General George Washington’s Aide-de-camp, he went from a penniless orphan to one of the most influential men of the new republic. He developed a national banking system, pulled the US out of its debt to France, wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, shaped foreign policy with the Neutrality Proclamation, and formed the Coast Guard, all while swatting away haters with his biting wit.
Also, he rapped!
2. Marquis de Lafayette
Lafayette, AKA Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, was inspired to join the American revolution when he attended a dinner with King George’s little brother, the Duke of Gloucester. Super salty over the king’s disapproval of his new wife, the duke took any chance he could to support the colonies. He inspired Lafayette to help them fight for freedom. King Louis of France expressly forbade Lafayette from joining forces with the Americans, so like any nineteen-year-old, he just ignored authority and did what he wanted anyway.
When he got to the colonies in 1777, he barely spoke English and he had zero experience on the battlefield. Yet in less than a year, he had achieved his own command as a major general in the Continental Army. What’s more, he did it all for free, and even wrote to his friends in France to send supplies.
He led the colonists to several crucial victories. He was shot in the leg in his first battle and still got his men to safety. Lafayette stuck by the army through the harsh winter in Valley Forge, and finished off the British with his bro Hamilton in the 1781 Battle of Yorktown.
There are 36 towns in the US named after him, and there’s even a statue of him in my hometown.
3. John Muir
Muir is known for his lifelong devotion to the natural beauty of North America, specifically in California. However, he actually lived in Scotland until he was about 11 years old. He moved with his family to Wisconsin, which is not as fun as California, but still better than Scotland in the 1800s.
While he had always been drawn to nature, Muir gained an even greater appreciation for it after a factory accident left him temporarily blind. After pooping around at some odd jobs, he began to garner attention through ecological articles he got published in various newspapers. Muir became the mouthpiece for the preservationist movement through his florid prose about mountains and rivers and stuff. He even went on a three-day camping trip with Teddy Roosevelt during which they compared facial hair and discussed the president’s views on environmental policy.
Thanks to him, the government established the Grand Canyon and Yosemite as national parks, and provided protection for many other areas as well.
He died of pneumonia, but not before he took a trip through the Amazon. # wanderlust
4. Andrew Carnegie
A pre-teen arriving in the US in 1847 with little education, Carnegie started his first job with a salary of $1.20/hr. He basically powered through a bunch of crap jobs until he was put in charge of managing Philadelphia’s railroads. Then he made some investments, started his own steel company, and became possibly the richest man in history. If the American dream could be a person, it would be Andrew Carnegie.
Carnegie made the production of steel so efficient that he was able to sell it at incredibly low prices. Urban development exploded, which led to a LOT of jobs and an upswing in the economy.
The Robber Barons tend to get a bad rap, mostly because they were ruthless capitalists who squashed anyone who dared challenge their monopolies. Or who were striking for fair pay. Or who were just poor. Anyway, Carnegie was one of them, but he wasn’t completely awful. He had given away $350 million by the time he died in 1919. His money went to education and scientific research, but most went to building a library system.
5. Stokley Carmichael
The prominent civil rights leader was actually born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1941. Although he lived in a predominately Jewish and Italian neighborhood, Carmichael attended the highly exclusive Bronx High School of Science, where he first realized that white New Yorkers are pretty much the worst. Also, he was in a gang called the Morris Park Dukes, which I imagine to have involved a lot of snapping and dancing and Puerto Ricans.
As leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he registered more than 2500 black voters in one Alabama county alone and created his own political party. He eventually lost faith in the nonviolent resistance touted by MLK, and took SNCC in a much more radical direction—he coined the phrase “Black Power” and made fist pumps a thing.
Carmichael’s hostility towards white people made him a more controversial figure over time, but that doesn’t mitigate the work he did to advance social equality for Black Americans.
6. Flossie Wong-Staal
Wong-Staal is a leading scientist in AIDS research. Born Yee Ching, she emigrated from China to study in the US when she was 18. In 1973, after earning her Ph.D. in molecular biology, she joined the National Cancer Institute to research retroviruses. Staal and her colleagues were trying to figure out what kind of virus was causing AIDS, which, I kid you not, used to be called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.
They discovered HIV in 1983, along with colleague Robert Gallo and French scientist Luc Montagnier. You’d think maybe she’d chill for a little bit after that. Instead, she took a victory lap and became the first person to clone HIV, allowing for the first genetic sequencing of the virus. Her work was critical to creating the tests we use to screen blood.
7. Mario Molina
Most people know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are little bastards that destroy the ozone layer. But up until the 1970s, they were believed to be harmless. They were used to make refrigerators and other appliances. It’s Molina who realized that CFCs were literally tearing Earth’s atmosphere a new one.
After getting his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at UC Berkeley, Molina became interested in the effects of CFCs on the environment. It was sort of just for kicks, since everyone thought that they just floated up and hung out until radiation destroyed them. However, it turns out that when they’re killed off, they emit chlorine, which definitely IS harmful.
Molina and his squad published their findings in 1974. Instead of just throwing out the information, collecting their accolades, and then calling it a day, they spent the next several years trying to make a difference. Their efforts went into educating the public through the media and convincing the government to regulate industries that used CFCs. They had to get the attention of the policymakers, Molina says, because the researchers “realized this was the only way to insure that society would take some measures to alleviate the problem.” He received the Nobel Prize in 1995.
8. Madeline Albright
Growing up, I definitely knew that Madeline Albright was a public figure, but I had what idea what for. Somehow I never learned about her in history classes, which is a shame, because she’s a freaking gem.
Narrowly missing the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, Albright and her family fled to England when she was a child. When they went back, they saw that the rise of Communism was imminent, had this reaction,
and moved to Denver, CO.
Albright didn’t enter politics until she was 39 years old. She worked under a senator as his chief legislative assistant, and moved up the ranks to advise the National Security Council in the Carter administration. Like many other women, she soon caught the eye of Bill Clinton (burn). Her political skill was so impressive that he appointed her as UN ambassador, and then as the first female secretary of state.
She was a staunch supporter of multilateralism. As sec of state, she promoted international civil rights, NATO, and an end to nuclear weapon development. She was the first Secretary of State to go to North Korea, and the first to eat waffles with Leslie Knope.
(9.) Alex Trebek
You are not going to convince me that jeopardy doesn’t change lives.