Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Reflections On America: Immigration

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.

Conte sailing dayIt’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.  


  1. kishik

    recount of your parents and grandmother’s immigrant story!  

    Question – did you capture their telling on audio??  It’s something that I think is important to future generations.

    One of my sisters as part of some school project taped by Grandmother’s account of growing up in NYC Chinatown – as the first girl-child born in NYC Chinatown.  My mother’s voice you can also here since she had accompanied my sister – and my mom is now gone for some years.  It’s wonderful to just hear both their voices.. and when I realized how strong my mom’s NY accent was… along with my grandmothers!

  2. LeftOverFlowerChild

    It’s an enormously complex and interesting challenge.

    And more twisted than the honeysuckle vine on my porch. So many turns and so many sides to address. I support immigration reform, after all as you so eloquently stated, we’re all immigrants in one way or another. We should support an easier pathway to becoming a citizen.

    My views are shaped by two family members, one here in Texas and another living in Bangkok Thailand. The one here, my brother in law is a certified licensed pipe fitter, he works in construction. For years it was a solid wage earning job, lots of overtime, benefits, the works. But in the last 10 years, more and more builders are hiring people who are not here legally. This is both a detriment to my brother in law and to the workers. My brother in law’s situation is obvious, he no longer makes 27+ an hour, but the current workers are being exploited, often significantly underpaid and overworked. It’s a two way street. A loss of income, a worker left to whims of a boss with a deadline. I saw the same thing when I worked for Head Start, especially in the dairy farm areas of Erath County. Long hours, poor pay, cramped and often unsafe living conditions–and no one to step in to make it right. The workers were scared to death of our Head Start vans for a long time because they thought we were immigration officers.

    On the other hand..the cost factor for immigration to the US is just ridiculous. I’m not talking about the cost of traveling here…No I’m talking about getting the paperwork done to move here. I have a family member living in Thailand, in order to bring his wife and child here he must pay for a background check on both his wife and his child. I get that, but 900.00 US dollars???? And that doesn’t include all the fees to have the forms translated from Thai to English and English to Thai, nor does it include fees for lawyers–which one needs to help swim around in that mess. And the real kicker? Any and all of it can change depending on whom one speaks to at the US Embassy. So essentially no one really knows what’s going on. He finally got his daughter’s passport, without the background check–After a lawyer pointed out she’s an American citizen by birth. Oh yeah…Yeah, that’s right she is said the embassy person ever so sheepishly.

    My understanding is it’s worse in Mexico because there’s always extra “fees” by the government officials.  So, one thing is clear, the pathway needs to be cleared of a lot bureaucratic nonsense and one clear system established. I’m sure not every country may have this kind of situation, but getting here shouldn’t be so impossible as to leave people no choice but to go over the border. And before anyone goes off, yes I understand the poverty level in Mexico is horrid especially since the Mexican government took away farming subsidies. Fees to move here would be impossible for some. A worker program–I could support that, hey taxes paid here, money increased in the US coffers. And workers protected. There are solutions, sane, humane solutions.

    Just my two cents worth…I’m pulling for reform, I want it, I think it’s necessary all the way around. And by that I mean a way to citizenship for those here right now, an easier but still comprehensive sane path to citizenship for those wanting to move to America.  

  3. SphinxMoth

    I agree it is a complicated subject. My ancestors have a long history here, the most recent immigrants dating back to 1846. I don’t know what motivated my 4x Grandmother and her brothers to leave Prussia (now Germany). I don’t agree that I hold any special rights over others because of that. We don’t ask to be born nor where. Migration is a natural behavior when survival dictates it.

    I grew up in California where the sentiment aligns with “we love our Mexicans” but not so openly stated. Seriously, if a nation wide day without a Mexican would take place it would really wake people up. I have a lot to say but my ideas weaves around so many issues that I’ll wait to see how others respond and go from there.

    I hope we can talk about the labor that supports our food system. Also, since now that I live near the AZ border, the effects of the ramped up border activity on the border communities and how effective is it are personal issues for me.

    My bottom line feeling it is time stop the underground labor system and the immigrants should be treated like human beings. We have to start paying more for our goods and services. I think we would be happier with less things in our lives and the planet would be happier too.

  4. Particularly loved your grandmother smuggling out all those fantastic examples of German and mittel europa literature under the eye of the Gestapo, hidden with children’s books.

    One of the things that most endears this Brit to the US is your (usually) dynamic and welcoming idea of immigration as a sign of success, determination and aspiration to escape the prisons of the past. I wish more Brits thought this way.

    True, in London, which is now more cosmopolitan than New York, over half the inhabitants have a non British parent. That’s changed in just 20 years when half had – like I do – a non British grandparent (I’m Armenian/Welsh/English): but much of the rest of the country detests London for its diversity, and their are signs of a growing nativist movements. Though it claims no ethnic element, Scots and Welsh nationalism can easily lead down this exclusive street, while English Defence League brought hooliganism and islamophobia to English nationalism.

    The truth is that, scratch below the surface, look at the DNA with a historical perspective, and even relatively ancient Britain is just layer after layer of migrants (much like the fascinating geology of the country’s rock strata). From whoever the first settlers were who crossed the land bridge during the last ice age, followed by Celts, Picts, Jutes, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Lombards, Huguenots, Irish, Caribbean, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Armenians, Poles Czechs…

    The list is exhaustive. Humans are a mobile migratory species (though nomadism and farming often came into conflict). Our great cities are places where people travelled, met, traded, exchange ideas, passions, love and poetry.

    Of course globalisation has often used migration to punish local workers, bringing in cheap labour and causing resentment over jobs and houses. But the upside of it all is so fantastic. My best friend have Jewish-Moroccan, or Spanish-Indian, or Kiwi-Northumbrian backgrounds.

    When Adam Smith posited the idea of free trade in the Wealth of Nations, he said that free movement of goods, service and capital needed to be met with free movement of labour

    It’s a paradox that so many so-called right wing free marketeers want absolutely no borders when it comes to moving their capital around or outsourcing their business, but want electrified rings of steel around the borders of Arizona.  

  5. was carrying on about how NY used to be great. Before they came. He didn’t care for immigrants. Chinese, Puerto Ricans, Jews… he didn’t like any of ’em.

    Funny. He didn’t look Native American

  6. Free Jazz at High Noon

    As the son of an immigrant and grandson of immigrants on my mother’s side, I could relate to the family history here.  

  7. Diana in NoVa

    Thank you, Cassandra, for this wonderful account of your family history.  I applaud the unflagging industry of your grandfather and the courage and adventurousness of your grandmother and mother. All of them are or were valuable additions to our U.S. shores.

    I’m married to an immigrant myself. He’s naturalized now, of course. That makes me sensitive to immigration issues and the fact that people want to come here for a better life. We aren’t perfect here in good old ‘Murrica, but we’re still a beacon of hope to people from other countries.

    It’s up to us to make this a better place to live for us all.

  8. sricki

    I love reading people’s stories, and this is one of courage, determination, innovation, and persistence. Much admiration for your family. Bravo to the whole of it.

  9. Seriously

    The story of your family is amazing.

    One side of my family came from Aberdeen. That’s the side I look like (red hair, blue eyes, etc). The other side came from Mexico. Ok, it was originally Alta California. After the war, they had dual citizenship. The Mexican side of my family is the one I relate to most. My hometown was 80% Mex. My friends were all Mex. You’ll never find my home without tortillas and beans (not joking). It’s survival food. Oh yeah, I married an immigrant.

    My husband is French. I met him back when we were renaming French Fries to Freedom Fries (Jeebus on a pogo stick). We renewed his green card last year. Why? because it was only a bit under $500 for that. Apply for citizenship? OW! That’s almost $1000 (in addition to renewing the green card). We barely survived the crashed economy and layoffs, etc. Green card renewal? We’re good for another 10 years. Oh yeah…he’s more of a minority than you might think. I’m just not ready to share that yet. 🙂

    Most of us here in the States don’t realize how awful the fees are to someone who makes so much less than we do. I grew up on the border of Mexico. I was closer to the problem than a lot of people. The fees are awful and that’s only on our side. “Mordida” on the other side sucks as much. Mordida is slang for bribes back home. It means “to take a bite”. An accurate description if you ask me.

    Oh yeah… layoffs? If you’re an immigrant (with green card) it can mean immediate deportation. My hubby’s status managed to exempt him from that. However, it’s a common problem for most immigrants.


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