Sunday, June 24, 2007

Old-Time Immigration

"This bill provides an historic opportunity to uphold America’s tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants and honoring our heritage as a nation built on the rule of law."

He's got to be kidding.

As most of modern Americans do, I come from a family of immigrants. My ancestors were legal immigrants. Isn't it interesting how the defining "illegal" tag has been dropped from the currently raging "immigration" debate?

In the early part of of the 20th century, most immigrants traversed an ocean to come to America. There was no sneaking across unguarded land at 2:00 A.M. with a flashlight. The authorities were lined up at the docks in New York and Boston, awaiting the immigrant ships' arrivals with their ledger books, their ink pens and, most significantly, their list of rules.

Immigrants had to be approved in advance. As they disembarked, they needed to present proof of sponsorship into the country. That meant that someone already in the U.S.A. legally, working a job and living at an address of record, had stepped up to vouch that this new immigrant also had a job and a home waiting for them. Without a sponsor, a woeful fate awaited the newcomer to America.

My paternal grandmother, who was sponsored into the U.S. by her sister, arrived at age sixteen. She said that one of the other passengers on the ship, a young lady about her age, was in front of her on the receiving line. Unfortunately, the girl's sponsor was not there to meet her. She was taken aside and placed, weeping, into a wooden holding pen.

"It was like a cage," my grandmother used to declare in indignant tones. (Can you imagine the uproar over that today?) Did her sponsor ever show up?, I asked. My grandmother never knew, because her sister was waiting to greet and sponsor her in. My grandmother was duly signed in and officially welcomed as a legal U.S. resident.

Even in the mid-20th century, the immigration system remained essentially the same. My husband's father was sponsored into the U.S. by a friend who had immigrated a few years before. A job at a utility company and a residence at the sponsor's home awaited my in-laws.

These arrangements were all upfront and on the official record. There were no "shadows" to live in or be "brought out of" in that era. You immigrated legally, in the open light of day, or you stayed put where you were until you could do so.

Both of my grandmothers became U.S. citizens when they married, by virtue of my two grandfathers' U.S. military service. That, I think, is an excellent tradition we should continue today. If an immigrant steps forward to serve our country in the military, the least we should do is to legalize his or her spouse.

But what are the lessons in this old family story? Yes, America is a "nation of immigrants," and we should be proud to continue that heritage. But hold on--where is the "rule of law" in today's border situation? Where are the sponsors? Where are the records of jobs and addresses? Where are the government officials signing each and every immigrant into the books as legal residents?

Where are the holding pens? Granted, a wooden cage is a bit harsh. I always felt bad about that girl, and I know my grandmother did, too. Why else would she be exclaiming over it 60 years later? But we don't need a wooden cage to do a fair job of ascertaining that the immigrants who come to our country today are legal and upright.

What we need is a completed fence, border agents who are empowered to do their jobs, and the cooperation of government to enforce our laws. Only that will, to quote the president, "build an immigration system worthy of our great nation.” With this current illegal immigration bill, as it stands today, I repeat: He's got to be kidding.