This July 4th, as we reflect on who we are and who we want to be as Americans, I decided to share the story of my father’s immigrant family. There’s not much to tell. And that’s the point, really.
On July 4th, we celebrate the document drafted by immigrants to these shores and their children which enumerated their reasons for breaking the law and rebelling against their country. As we do so, immigration stances and policies put forth the by the White House stand under scrutiny. We should be taking a hard look at them. We should be trying to get some perspective.
THE COMPLAINTS AGAINST IMMIGRATION
The complaint I hear from those supporting these policies is that the U.S. is too open. It allows in too many immigrants. That doing so weakens the country. It weakens security. Let’s in crime. Brings in people who don’t work. Who won’t try to be part of our society.
Numerous studies have established that’s all hogwash. Which makes sense.
Immigrants give up everything certain in their lives for a big, fat uncertainty in coming here. They have no guarantees. They know no one or almost no one. The language is most likely not their own. The culture certainly isn’t. They willingly take a humongous risk, one of the hardest for humans to make. To give up the known for the unknown. The comfortable for an empty void.
People like that come prepared to change. To strive. To adapt. To become part of the new place. They tend to be more devoted to the new country than those born there. Because they gave up everything to be there.
Immigration strengthens us in almost every way imaginable.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT CRIME VS. IMMIGRATION
But what about the criminals? Well, we do have laws weeding those elements out and laws allowing us to deport them if they do slip in. And they have worked. Most of the immigrants that arrive here, regardless of whether by legal or illegal entry, aren’t criminals. Further, immigrant populations in the U.S. are generally responsible for a smaller percentage per capita of crime in this country than their born-citizen counterparts.
Same, by the way, for desire to work, assimilation, and security. Most immigrants have a drive to succeed, a wish for safety, and a resolve to be part of a new thing. They work hard. They succeed. And far from creating security risks, they have been instrumental in thwarting security problems.
Face it, if someone fled an area where bombing or shooting in the streets posed a real threat, they would happily tell authorities when folks are up to that same nasty business in their new home.
Or they would unless we discourage them from doing so. By, for instance, threatening to deport them back to the land of shooting and bombing in the streets for the offense of daring to come forward and make all Americans safer. Here’s a hint: That’s why people defend sanctuary city concepts so much. Because it makes all of us safer.
When people come out in support of the current administration’s policies on immigration, they often speak like we had absolutely no laws or restrictions on immigration prior to Trump becoming President. When Trump issued his first travel ban a/k/a Muslim ban, many in support of it completely ignored that immigrants from those countries were already heavily and successfully vetted. Same with what goes on at the southern border, and with asylum seekers. The U.S. does not have open borders, and no one has been suggesting that it should have them.
But we did further back in the past. And it did not destroy us or threaten our security. In many ways, it made the U.S. what it is. Most of those currently supporting the President’s immigration polices benefitted from their forefathers being allowed entry under much more lax or non-existent immigration rules. They are here arguing for more restrictive immigration policies because their forefathers immigrated under more lax ones.
ONE FAMILY’S IMMIGRANT STORY STARTS IN SICILY
That’s where my family’s story comes in. I offer it as a means of gaining perspective on the complaints made about immigration today.
Like I said, there is not much to tell.
Short version. My grandparents came to the U.S. from another country, faced almost no obstacles to their immigration, and went on to become U.S. citizens, contributing to American society. The end.
Allow me to elaborate.
My grandfather and grandmother lived in a small town in Sicily.
For those unaware, here is a map of Europe. See the heeled boot dangling out there to the south? That’s Italy. See the triangular island the boot appears to be kicking? That’s Sicily. And that about sums up the situation my grandparents and many others found themselves in the early part of the 1900s. Being on the $h!t-end of the stick of Europe.
Sicily, like many islands of the Mediterranean, has a history of being an independent nation. But it also has a history of being part of southern Italy or at least closely tied to it. In the 1800’s it became part of Italy, as Italy shifted from a collection of city states and provinces to a nation.
In my grandparents’ time, many in Italy saw Sicily as hick country. Rural, backwards, economically depressed.
My grandparents were from Siracusa. I was told that means they were from or near the town of Siracusa. But they could have meant they came from the county or region of Siracusa.
This is the part where I would be inserting photos of my grandparents. Alas, my father currently has most of the ones I would use. So, I can’t do that. Instead I’ll be inserting photos of other Sicilian immigrants or their children.
IMMIGRATION ROOTED IN POVERTY
My grandfather looked at the lack of opportunities and the future of poverty his young family faced. And he said, “Enough.”
Male children and passing on the family name held huge importance to his culture. He and his wife had the good fortune of having a boy as their first child. They named him, according to custom, after my grandfather’s father. By tradition, the second son would be named after his mother’s father. Sadly, their firstborn did not live. I can’t remember for sure, but I believe typhus ended his young life.
As a child, when I visited my grandmother’s home, a large photo of this first son hung suspended near the ceiling, angled downward just a bit, as if he were looking out over the whole room. Perhaps it was hung that way in suggestion of him looking down from heaven on the family. I barely have any knowledge of him, but the photo lingers in my mind, like the after-echo from a ghost.
The couple had a second child, a daughter. I don’t know if the fate of their firstborn son weighed in the decision to give up everything on a vague chance in America, but I find it hard to believe it was not a factor, as was the health of their second child. And I’m certain they felt that their poverty gave the disease the opportunity to take their first child away.
IMMIGRATION IN STAGES
Having decided to take a chance on America, my grandfather played it smart. He sailed to the U.S. alone, leaving his wife and child behind. He tried his hand at getting work. When he had saved enough, he not only had the money to bring the rest of the family over but also proof there was a chance they could make it in their new home.
My grandfather then went back over to Sicily to help his wife tie up their affairs there for good and then returned to the U.S., again alone. My grandmother came over separately, as soon as everything back in Sicily was sold off.
Apparently, my grandmother and grandfather made the most of their spousal reunion in Sicily. My grandmother crossed the Atlantic already pregnant with my uncle. He was conceived in Sicily but would be born a full U.S. citizen. My father followed him a little more than a year later.
For the curious, my grandparents forewent custom on naming their second, now eldest, son. He carried a name common in the family but of more holy, or blessed meaning, as if trying to ward against ill-fortune for that new son. Thus, it was my father, as the second surviving son, who was once again named for his father’s father. Which means he carries the same name as the dead brother he never knew. Weird and creepy? To you, maybe. To my grandparents, it was right and proper.
And that’s all there is to my grandparents’ immigration story. They came to America. No muss. No fuss. Because they did, my father was in a position to met my mother, and I was born. I exist because of U.S. immigration laws that allowed my grandparents entry into the country.
THE “RIGORS” OF U.S. IMMIGRATION FOR ONE FAMILY
For perspective, my grandfather crossed the Atlantic four times. He entered the U.S. twice. Because he came by boat, he had no choice. He had to arrive through a port of entry and be processed. He had it easy compared to those currently considering entry at the U.S. southern border.
My grandfather never faced scrutiny. Did not apply for entry in advance. Was not rejected for a visa because it was obvious he intended to stay here, a reason some folks face rejection today. He was not asked anything more rigorous upon entering this country than his name and place of origin. That’s it.
Did he have to demonstrate knowledge of the history of this nation? No. How about being able to speak English? Not really. Literacy of any kind? Nope.
How about proving he was not from say, the growing organized crime folks from Sicily, who at the time were immigrating to specifically do crime in America? You know the ones. The mafia. Nope.
My grandparents, like many immigrants today, came to the U.S., held to their culture and their language, but still assimilated into American culture and language. They worked hard and made a life for themselves that was probably far better than what awaited them in Siracusa.
They and their children still faced discrimination. They were dirty, guinea, wops. They were silly, Papist, Catholics. Even among fellow Catholics, like many Irish, who saw Italian immigrants as “doing it wrong” when it came to how they practiced their faith.
No matter what their accomplishments, my grandparents were sometimes considered ignorant and dumb because they spoke broken English and had difficulty reading or writing it. The discrimination they faced was only a drop in the ocean faced by someone of darker skin or a non-Christian faith. It still stung. They still persevered.
They bought a real home, worked hard, raised a family, and made a decent living. My grandfather was a fisherman, which also helped keep his family fed. My grandmother was the keeper of the home. She sewed until she was too old to see properly on an ancient sewing machine that used a foot treadle to power it. She cleaned the fish her husband caught and saved parts to use as fertilizer for their garden. She was known for getting plants to bloom and thrive in places they shouldn’t.
My grandparents may have lacked formal education, but were smart, hard-working people, with a drive to succeed, who raised amazing children. They came with nothing and managed to do well, despite starting life in this country during the Great Depression.
Decent and law abiding, my immigrant grandparents were neither criminals, nor did they support criminals. Well, except as victims of them. Remember those organized crime folks in America? Well my grandfather was a fisherman. And he was told by members of organized crime to smuggle booze from Canada on his boat. Or something bad would happen to that nice family of his. Or so, at least, one family legend goes.
My father, his brother, and his sister’s husband all served in the U.S. armed forces. My uncle received the Bronze Star for his service in Korea. All of the siblings became contributing members to American society with children of their own and so on. Among my family are teachers, managers, military service personnel, and many more, all adding to American society and culture.
All because my grandparents could come here.
A COMPLETELY ORDINARY IMMIGRANT STORY
My grandparents faced almost no obstacles other than their own poverty in trying to enter the U.S. They did not come fleeing a crisis, such as gang violence, or bombing, or genocide. They came simply because they were poor and wanted better.
Far from being unique, their story is fairly typical.
PERSPECTIVE ON IMMIGRATION TODAY
Use my grandparents’ story for a little perspective when looking at immigrants today.
Most of the immigrants at the southern border, or from the Middle East are fleeing life and death situations. They are desperate to literally save the lives of their families. Most are grateful for the opportunity that the U.S. represents. Most want to do well in their new country, if only given a chance to come in at all.
Under the current administration’s policies, I am not sure my grandparents would be allowed into this country. They were not fleeing oppression. They did not work in skilled jobs. They were unskilled and ill-educated folk.
I am almost certain my grandfather would not have been allowed to play it safe and test the waters in America first before making the monumental decision to uproot his precious family and bring them here.
And I wonder, with our current social climate, how much more unwelcome my grandparents would have felt here, with their broken English and their superstitions.
But they did not have to face such obstacles. And so, they came here. Giving me the chance to write today. Countless others have similar stories. Giving their descendants a chance to be here. To become President or serve in the administration. Or scream about how immigrants of today shouldn’t be let into this country.
The people whose photos are above. Ask yourself. Would they or their parents have been able to become Americans under the current administration’s immigration policies? Could they have presented the extraordinary circumstances that allow one to get a visa or a green card? For most, if not all, the answer is probably, “No.”
Just some perspective to keep in mind on this Fourth of July as we contemplate the Declaration written by and the nation forged by immigrants.