Starting Over

If they go back far enough, every family has immigration stories.

We all come from somewhere. My father’s family emigrated from Russia, although Dad was born here—at Methodist Hospital, he was proud to say. His mother and father, I am told, met on the ship and married a short time later.

My maternal grandmother, Jennie, was born and raised in Austria-Hungary. When she was 16, her parents sent her to an American aunt to escape the tyranny; I used to lie awake and imagine her terror and my great-grandfather’s anguish as he ran beside the train tracks when the locomotive lumbered away from the station. She never saw her parents again.

When we’re young, we don’t pay close enough attention to the stories our grandparents tell—we’re bored by the recounting of old-country experiences that have no relevance in our modern world. Now that the oldest generation of my family is gone, I’m left to speculate on many of the details. It is unclear precisely where my paternal grandparents lived—Latvia? Lithuania?—or under what conditions they left, whether they married for love or convenience. Their names were Ida Esther and Jacob, and my sole connection growing up was their photos on my father’s bureau.

Some 35 years after her death, I learned that Jennie (that’s her, on the right, with American relatives) met her future husband, George, in the garment district of New York. They later moved to Cincinnati, where they opened a delicatessen that grew into a successful gourmet food market and remained in the family for some 80 years. Grandma never spoke of what she left behind.

If they go back far enough, every family has stories like this. We all come from somewhere. The immigration debate today is as controversial as deficit spending, healthcare reform, gays in the military. We want to close borders or leave them open, profile immigrants or respect their privacy, allow children of illegal residents to gain citizenship or send them away. The battle rages, while people continue to crowd our country for better lives. My head tells me those here illegally can’t stay. But my heart remembers that train and those strangers meeting on a ship. They entered our country legitimately, but the sacrifice was gut-wrenching and immeasurable.

Getting to America isn’t any easier today, and staying takes willpower and resources. A Canadian executive in our country remembers that, while attending graduate school on a student visa, he and other foreign students were warned by an immigration attorney about the lack of discernible logic or fairness to immigration law. The rules, the expert cautioned, are arbitrary and nonsensical. The executive required the services of an immigration lawyer himself, at the cost of $12,000, just to slog through the red tape surrounding the two visas for him and his family during the first four years he worked in America.

His efforts to obtain the green card that will allow him and his family to stay permanently will cost another $30,000 in legal fees, government-imposed processing fees, and medical evaluations by a “civil surgeon,” which assured, among other things, that he wasn’t infected with syphilis. (Like he says, were he carrying a communicable disease—which he is not—it more than likely would have been contracted here.) Along the way, he was required to submit long-form birth-registration documents and an extensive life history, including every group of which he has been a member. He had to prove that he met all criteria for his job, and his company was required to launch a widespread recruiting effort to see if other appropriate candidates could be found. I have nine-and-a-half pages of handwritten notes on his immigration travails. It’s no wonder folks are climbing the border fences searching for a shortcut.

This guy is a poster boy for the kind of citizen we want: Harvard MBA/homeowner/active consumer. But we don’t make it easy. A few years ago, after attending commencement ceremonies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a premier science-and-engineering school, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously complained that there should have been someone present from the Immigration and Naturalization Service stapling green cards to the diplomas of foreign-born Ph.D.s. “If we can’t educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level,” Friedman wrote, “we’d better make sure we can import someone else’s …” The gentleman in question should learn this spring if his application has been granted, nearly five years since the process began. If an applicant without proper visas is denied, he might have just one day to leave the country.

When I described to my son Jonathan, who is named after my grandmother Jennie, how difficult it has been to glean background information on our ancestors, he responded that perhaps none of their personal history matters, that at the end of the day they were Americans. Maybe it’s my age, but I believe their history is important, that somebody must remember the struggles and sacrifices, the courage it took for them to leave their homes for a strange, new land—the weight behind the imprint they made here.

I have no idea if the Hispanic workers who installed a new roof on our house last summer were documented or otherwise. What I do know is they came at dawn, worked tirelessly on black tar paper in 95-degree heat, and stayed until well past dark, sometimes banging overhead even as we readied for bed. Their individual stories may well mirror those of my own ancestors, and I fear if I heard them, I might not care if they’re legal or not. We all come from somewhere.

Illustration by Christian Northeast.

This column originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.