Pondering About Immigration, Then And Now


Should I be shouting out loud? Those damned illegals! Send’em the hell back to where they came from! That attitude is usually expected from this almost 90-year-old American-born citizen. Because I’m all comfy with enough savings and monthly pension income to afford a modestly untroubled retirement, I could join the rabid anti-immigration ranks. 

I always paid my share of taxes during working years, and with all the usual gripes, still do. So, why am I not screaming about undocumented Hispanic immigrants who sneak in, work cheap and take jobs away from more deserving American citizens?

Just maybe it’s because my mother and father were child immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island at the dawn of the 20th Century. Both families were escaping religious persecution and hopeless lifetimes of poverty. In their first years here, it wasn’t much of an improvement over the old country.

They lived in crowded two-room walk-up tenement apartments. Typically, they had to drop out of school before their teens, so they could help their families by working long days in sweatshops for a few cents an hour.

As with many of today’s immigrants, my parents and their families were not welcome in their new American communities and schools. They spoke a foreign language and practiced a different religion. As with many newly-arrived immigrants of that time, they frequently were scorned with words kike, spic, chink, wop, kraut, Polack and shanty Irish.

Of course, I could take the easy route and rant about today’s undocumented immigrants who are desperately attempting to find opportunity for decent lives in the United States. After all, my grandparents and their families came here legally and were correctly processed through Ellis Island. Actually, that’s not quite true. While escaping from Russia and Poland, they crossed many national borders illegally and broke laws that could have landed them in prison or worse.

I believe today’s immigration laws should be tempered with humanity, creating legal, orderly pathways to eventual citizenship. The Emma Lazarus quote on the Statue of Liberty still has the same meaning as it did more than a century ago when my parents came to America:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me… 

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