Having recently arrived on your welcoming purple shores, I’ve been thinking about immigration. It’s a subject that amazes and perplexes me, and one that our witless politicians are finally beginning to grapple with, but for all the wrong reasons. They see what all the rest of us have seen for years: the US is no country for old [white] men. While our politicians were busy re-fighting the battles of the past, millions of folks in search of opportunity have quietly entered the country and begun living, working, and studying along with the rest of us.
It’s an enormously complex and interesting challenge. As usual, the politicians approach it primarily from the perspective of near-term personal advancement. They can’t win without the Hispanic vote, gosh darn it all to heck. Guess it’s time to do something, they sigh. Just have to be careful not to scare away the old white guys, so we’ll be sure to include a big fence with concertina wire and armed guards. Plus our contractor friends will get some good work out of it.
Me? I’m not a politician, thank [insert name of deity here]. I’m just the daughter of an immigrant mom, trying to connect the dots in hopes that I can figure out what’s happened so far, and what might come next. So please pull up a chair, and let’s try to sort this out together. Maybe we can make some sense of all this.
A World War I veteran in the medical corps and prominent neurosurgeon in Berlin, my grandfather left Nazi Germany in 1938, arriving in the US. He learned English, and obtained a position as a university lecturer (for a salary of $500 per year) while studying to re-take all of his medical boards in every field of medicine, not just his specialties of neurology and psychiatry (in English, of course), before being allowed to practice medicine. Then, in order to become a naturalized citizen, he had to leave the US and re-enter. He took a bus from Boston to Miami, traveled to Cuba by boat, then back into the US. Only then could he send for my mother and grandmother to join him.
Back in Germany, my mother and grandmother packed up their belongings under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, who required that every item taken out of the country be inventoried. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be an irritating and time-consuming hassle.
Heightening the danger in this case was the fact that my grandmother was smuggling out hundreds of black-listed books by authors that had been critical of the Third Reich.
Picture: The Conte di Savoia – Gateway to America for My Mother and Grandmother
Somehow, by mixing these books in with my mother’s childrens’ books, and allowing the Gestapo officer to keep himself entertained playing my grandparents’ grand piano, they avoided detection. As a result, works by Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Kastner, Thomas Mann, Kurt Tucholsky, Scholem Asch, Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Max Brod, Franz Werfel and many other prominent writers made the perilous cross-Atlantic journey under the watchful eye of my courageous grandmother and my adventure-loving mother.
Next up: petitioning the American Consulate for exit visas to emigrate to the US. My mother recalls that it was easier dealing with the Gestapo than the unhelpful and uncaring bureaucrats in the Consulate. Day after day, they were told to return another time. Finally, my mother and Grandmother were granted permission to leave for the US. All of their German money had to remain in Germany. All costs had to be paid in US dollars.
They traveled by train from Berlin to Milan, then to Genoa where they boarded the Conte di Savoia. Crossing the storm-tossed Atlantic was no picnic, despite the ships supposedly state-of-the-art gyro stabilizers. The greater concern was mines that littered the ocean, lying in wait for passing vessels. Still, they arrived in New York Harbor on February 29th to be reunited with my grandfather. After what must have been an unimaginably emotional reunion, they piled into his newly-purchased (for $120) Ford and headed to Boston.
Reveling in their new-found freedoms, my mother and her parents settled in, recovering from their nutritional deprivation through the delicious cooking of their Sicilian neighbors, exploring New England, and settling into American life.
Unfortunately, they were not home free. When the US became involved in the European war, my mother and grandparents were declared “enemy aliens” in a proclamation by their hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As “natives, citizens, denizens or subjects of Germany 14 years of age and upward”, they were to refrain from “interfering by word or deed with the defense of the United States or the political processes and public opinion thereof”. They could not possess or use “short-wave receiving sets, cameras or firearms”. Many other limitations were imposed, the most difficult for them being that they could not travel – even within New England – without permission of the government.
Having heard these accounts on many occasions, find myself feeling very conflicted. Here were three productive, intelligent people who only wanted to live in America. They endured family separation, risk to life and limb, interminable bureaucratic delays, and expense, and sacrificed the possibility of seeing some of their loved ones ever again. Only through their tenacity and courage were they able to be reunited and go on to live for many years in a country that millions of us take for granted.
Fast forward to 2007, when Mr. Carolina and I relocated from a town of about 7,000 souls in New Hampshire to the outskirts of Houston, Texas, a metropolitan area of about 4 million souls.
We sold our 4-bedroom “country colonial” house with its lovely farmer’s porch in NH, and found that for $100K less, we could buy a 5-bedroom, 4-bath brick house in a nice neighborhood, spiral staircase, granite and tile throughout, game room, media room, three car garage, all top-notch construction, nicely landscaped. How was this possible?
Our realtor put it this way: “We LOVE our Mexicans!” What the…? OUR Mexicans?
Immigrant labor is the engine behind the “Texas Miracle”. Fortuitous geology helped, of course, but there’s more to the Lone Star State than petroleum. Immigrants staff our restaurants, manufacturing plants, and commercial businesses. Our lawn crew? All immigrants. Our neighbors’ nannies and cleaning ladies? Yup. Immigrants. Most of the folks building new homes throughout suburbia? You got it.
You might wonder why our witless governor Rick Perry has done virtually nothing to “crack down” on illegal immigration. His corporate cronies are way too comfortable with the status quo. Immigrants are willing to work for crummy wages. They’ll tolerate unsafe or abusive working conditions. They won’t complain and risk retaliation or deportation. We love our Mexicans, indeed.
Somewhere between the extremes of immigration policy – making it nearly impossible for people to come here, or leaving our borders completely porous and then acting surprised that we’ve added millions of people without any sort of plan to handle them – lies the possibility of real reform.
I love the fact that my mother’s an immigrant. Nobody loves the US more. At age 87, she still votes in every single election. She’s better informed than most people on political issue (and she’s a lifelong Progressive!) I love the fact that between my husband’s family and mine, our ancestors got here one way or the other, coming to this country for love, for a job, or for education, or to escape tyranny.
As people are fond of saying here in Texas, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quick as I could”. We’re a nation of immigrants, a fact that our political “leaders” ignore at their peril. Peopl
e are getting here as quick as they can, and a good thing, too. There’s much to be done in the way of nation-building here at home, and we will need the intelligence, vision, tenacity, and skills of all sorts of people to get the job done.