Legal immigration: A piece of family history

My Greek grandmother, 1960. (Yeah, she scared us, too.)

There’s so much whining today about the plight of illegal immigrants — “oh, the suffering! I had to hide all the way through my BA and my master’s degree at at publicly-funded university!” — that I thought I would pass along a quick piece of history.

I was going through my father’s papers in preparation for the inevitable (he’s 94, and not well), and I came across the usual metal box that every older parent seems to keep that contains all of the documents — I repeat, documents, not “un”-documents — that constitute at least a partial record of a family’s existence.

My grandparents, every one of them, came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century. All of them spoke with accents. (My Irish grandmother, in theory, spoke English, if you understood that an “unnun” was an “onion.”  To stay in her good graces, you also had to accept that Bobby and Jack Kennedy lived in Heaven with the Holy Spirit.) All of them entered the United States legally, and have their names inscribed on the wall at Ellis Island.

The Ellis Island wall

But the streets, as it turned out, weren’t paved with gold. In fact, they weren’t paved at all. And being an immigrant pretty much sucked: the only thing that would suck worse would be, say, to have stayed in Greece or Ireland in 1908. (We think Nana hightailed it out of Eire because she was trying to outrun an arranged marriage, but since everyone involved is now dead, that mystery will never be solved.)

Anyway, all of them went to work in the mills of Western Massachusetts, which were only somewhat less “dark and satanic” than their British counterparts immortalized in William Blake’s 19th century poetry. (Plus, it was a lot colder in New England than Old England.)

A mill like many others, circa 1937. I grew up a few streets away in the early 1960s.

My Irish ancestors eventually found relatively more skilled work in places like the public water department, not only because they could speak English (kinda), but also because the Irish Catholics steadily took over the scut-work the WASPs would delegate to them.

Eventually, they took over the city government, too, and perfected the long, proud tradition of complete corruption and patronage that plagues New England to this day.


My Greek grandmother got a job in the mills, and then in the WPA. And here’s where it really sucked to be an immigrant:

Ever seen one of these? No? Didn’t think so.

You’ll notice that she was fired, summarily, in 1937 because she was an “Alien,” and because there was a U.S. citizen available to do the work.

America was still in the grip of the Great Depression; Theresa Nicolaides was at that time nearly 40 years old. Her 19 year old son lived upstairs with his wife and young son (bad life choice, but he came from an era when people really didn’t have access to contraception). He was also working a miserable job assembling dolls in a nearby factory, and was laid off soon. A few years earlier, the family had successfully fought off an attempt to foreclose on their home; my grandfather was not well and died of a stroke during World War II.

But here’s the really important part: no one in my father’s family really thought anything of it. Of course the job would go to a U.S. citizen; why wouldn’t it?

Oh, I can hear it now: “But Tom, today, these are jobs that Americans won’t do!”

Really? Check the Reuters story from last week again. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of Americans who’d be more than happy to be computer science majors at UCLA. But one of those seats happens to be taken up by a kid whose parents snuck him in here in violation of U.S. law years ago. (Imagine giving him an expulsion notice that says: “U.S. citizen is available to take this seat in class.”)

The Reuters caption: “Fabiola Santiago, an undocumented UCLA student with a masters degree in Public Heath, attends a graduation ceremony for UCLA ”Dreamers”, or Dream Act students, at a church near the campus in Los Angeles, California June 15, 2012.” An MPH. I swear I’m not making this up.

Eventually, everyone in my family got their U.S. citizenship, but my parents (again, all born in the U.S) didn’t finish high school during the Depression and its aftermath. My mother chose the U.S. Air Force for a few years, and got a better start in life than she could have dreamed, joining up with her sister and serving proudly during the Korean War until her father’s death forced her to come home.

Should have thought about that before you signed the papers, kid. Clearly, not a math major.

After a lot of tough jobs and small apartments, they managed to buy a home, travel later in life, and help me as best they could to work my way through school. I paid my student loans, thanks, and they were at a lot higher interest than the giveaways kids are getting now. (I made my last payment as I was pushing 40, but I paid them. “Occupy Wall Street” can kiss my …receipts.)

So the next time you’re moved by a sob story about some kid who can’t tell his classmates at UCLA about the fact that he’s actually not a U.S. citizen, take out Mrs. Nicolaides’s 1937 termination notice, and think again.

The children of illegal aliens are here because their parents brought them here, and their parents, and no one else, are responsible for their state of affairs. (And remember, saying “well, they’re here now” isn’t an answer: it’s merely a statement of fact that has no bearing on what to do next. Saying that the children are not at fault doesn’t mean that no one is at fault.)

Still, if you feel badly for these families, you can apparently console them during ceremonies at UCLA, where their children are graduating just like all the other American kids who got to go to graduate school at a fine, publicly-funded U.S. university.

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  1. This article shows a basic lack of understanding of how immigration law works.

    First off, it has changed since the early 1900’s, when US immigration policy still followed the inscription on the statue of liberty (Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free).

    Secondly, immigrants are not eligible to receive federal or state funding for schooling. That means, unlike most students, they pay out of pocket. They may be eligible for some private scholarships, but I think most people would agree that a private entity should be able to give their funding to whomever they deem worthy. Now that’s a free market.

    The article points out, rightly so, that many of these people were brought here before they had free will, and were wards of their parents. Did you know that the policy of deportation of these children was the ONLY law on the books which made someone responsible for the actions of their parents?

    Let me put you in the shoes of an immigrant I know: You enter the US, in the care of your parents, at the age of 2. You grow up in America, English is your first language, you go to school here, it is all you know. Suddenly, at 13, and your parents have “the talk” with you. But this isn’t about sex. They tell you that you’re undocumented and needed to be careful around police, at school, on the bus, riding with friends, etc… of people asking for your documentation or identification. They tell you that if you get picked up by immigration officers or the police, you could be deported to a country that, for all intents and purposes, you have never been to, and possibly don’t speak the language of all that well.

    What would you do? Would you research what that means, and then find that you technically broke the law when you were to young to even speak or make decisions for yourself? Would you then say “That’s not fair to Americans, I should leave!”, pack your bags and buy a ticket to your “home country” with the money you probably don’t have, coming from a poor immigrant family. You then show up in a country you’ve never known, with a poor grasp on the language, and try to make a new life for yourself with no network of friends, family, or co-workers. You’re too young to do most jobs. You have incomplete education. You have no home and no money for food. You essentially become homeless overnight, all because of something your parents did to help you escape a life of violence, corruption, and poverty, that you had no say in.

    After looking at it from their perspective, if you truly believe these people don’t deserve some kind of path to citizenship, you have no compassion for your fellow man. Borders are made up lines on a map, and laws are made, changed, and unmade by men who often make mistakes, are corrupted by power and money, and are not always motivated by what is best for their fellow man. Compassion and kindness to others should not apply only to US citizens.

    • PS: Spare me the Emma Lazarus romanticism. If you showed up at Ellis Island and you were ill, or part of the wrong group, or the officer behind the desk was having a bad day, you went home (or somewhere else). Sneaking into the United States was then, as now, illegal, and you certainly couldn’t show up in California, claim in-state tuition, and then get assistance from the state government. (Think of it this way: an illegal alien can get a better deal from a California university than a U.S. citizen from Nevada, right next door.)

      This whole debate over illegal immigration jumped the shark during the Reagan administration, when amnesty produced all the things it wasn’t supposed to produce, and the U.S. essentially surrendered control of its southern border. And now we’re paying the price.

  2. A wonderful, showy display of compassion, and one that illustrates the pain at the heart of the problem of illegal immigration.

    First, I’d really like to know — now that you bring it up — how illegal immigrants are paying for college. Or even being admitted to college, since I recall, as a male, having to register with the Selective Service before I could matriculate. (I had to go down to the local post office and sign up before I set foot on campus. Silly me — following rules and obeying the law and all that obvious malarkey.)

    By the way, you seem to have missed the news last year when California (joining TX and NM) passed a law allowing illegal immigrants to access state aid for college — which is just gosh-darned heartwarming, isn’t it?

    Second, telling me how awful it is to be the child of an illegal immigrant doesn’t then logically trigger an amnesty, because to do so just rewards the parents for gambling with the lives of their children in the first place. What deterrent is there to stop future illegals if we make it clear that once you’re here, you get to shout olly-olly-oxen-free, and go to college? (Hmm. Here’s an idea: what about “keeping the family together,” and deporting the entire group? If you’re a minor, you’re in the custody of your parents, and where they go, you go.)

    Unfortunately, your compassion only extends to the children of illegals. It obviously does not extend to people who worked hard, followed the rules, bought homes, paid taxes — all of their taxes — voted, created school systems, built infrastructure, and did all the other things that are part of citizenship. Their reward is overburdened schools, de facto bilingualism in a country where most English-speaking kids can’t write a complete sentence, and a collapsing social infrastructure that was never designed to handle what are now, essentially, millions of stateless people.

    Millions of people come to America every year from all over the world to get an education, make money, and get started in life — and then they go back home. If Mexicans don’t want to go back to Mexico (which doesn’t want them, apparently), why is that the fault of tax-paying Americans?

    Compassion and kindness should apply to everyone, so long as it not abused or taken advantage of by the recipient. That, I grant you should be a common human virtue.

    But so should common sense.