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.
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.)
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:
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.”)
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.
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.