Saturday, March 31, 2007

Honest Immigration

Longtime readers may recall that, in May 2005, I blogged a series of posts recounting the story of my late husband Pete’s immigrant family. Their dramatic saga, from war-torn Latvia to German refugee camps, and finally to the United States, is one of faith, perseverance and courage.

Immigration was a very involved process in post World War II America, and there was no such thing as an entitlement program or high profile lobbyists clamoring in the media for aliens’ rights. An immigrant had to have a job and all necessary paperwork in order to enter the country circa 1950. Everything had to be on the books, upfront.

In other words, an immigrant had to be legal. So how, exactly, did my in-laws manage to come to America?

Close family friends of Pete’s parents were approached by a U.S. Army officer they had come to know while in a refugee camp in post-WWII Germany. This officer was from the southern U.S., and he had a large cotton farm that needed workers. This Latvian family had several growing children, and they were more than willing to do any work that would get them into America. The officer sponsored the family into the U.S.A. as legal workers on his land.

One of these children, Anna, was a young woman in her late teens when she arrived in the southern U.S. with her family. Anna told me that there was an abandoned railroad car on one of the farm’s empty fields, and that’s where her family lived. They had no plumbing and no electricity. The whole family worked picking cotton from dawn until dark. “Nobody helped us,” she said simply and without rancor. “Nobody gave us anything. We were on our own.”

Anna’s father would buy the Sunday newspaper and read the job ads that were posted for different parts of the country. After about one year of working on the cotton farm, he found a “help wanted” ad for utility workers in Indianapolis. He applied for a position and was hired. Anna’s father moved to Indianapolis first, leaving his family on the farm to keep working and saving money. After a time, all of the family moved to Indianapolis.

Shortly after they were settled, the utility company issued word that it needed more workers. Anna’s father submitted an application for my father-in-law, who was still in the refugee camp in Germany, awaiting an opportunity. The company hired Pete’s father, and that was my husband’s family's ticket into America.

My mother-in-law, Helen, told me that when they arrived in the U.S.A., she had no idea how far away Indianapolis was from New York harbor. At the time, my husband Pete was an eleven-month-old infant, and she had no food for him during the long train ride. As the hours wore on, Pete was screaming in hunger. A woman traveling on the same train with her child took pity and gave Helen a jar of baby food. My in-laws did not speak a word of English when they arrived, so the kind lady pointed to the baby on the label and then at Pete, to show Helen that the food was meant for him. Helen said she was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed. After spending six years scrambling for bread crusts in the refugee camp, a jar of specially-made baby food seemed beyond incredible.

Contrast this story with the sense of entitlement that surrounds some (not all) of the illegal immigrants who walk across our borders with their hands out. When our borders were meaningful, no immigrant waved any flag but our own. It would not have occurred to them to wave a different flag. These honest immigrants had worked too hard for too long, and had suffered too much to get here. Perhaps most telling, they did not feel "owed" by the U.S. They were, and remain to this day, very grateful to be here.

Valuable lessons, true principles of honest immigration, now lost on a blurred and trampled border.