“If Immigration says I’m an ‘alien,’ I get to pick the planet.” I thought that over. “Good enough, and welcome to Earth.”
Immigrants, I’ve discovered, like telling their stories and I’m pretty forward in asking. I hear an accent I want to know where it comes from.
- I met an Indian Sikh woman who honors Christmas every year with a tree, a real tree, not a fake. She is clear about that, adamant, not artificial. It is part of what makes her feel like an American. But it was 10 years getting here before she could put a tree up in the United States. Her application for U.S. entry was initially rebuffed. She could not gain direct entry to the United States, but she could get to Canada. So she lived in Toronto for those 10 years. Canada, a member of the Commonwealth with India, placed fewer barriers in her way and from there, once all her Canadian were credentials were in place, she got her visa and moved to Kansas City. (Yeah, that was kind of my reaction too.)
- The first lawyer I call when I need one is a Vietnamese woman who graduated law 16 years ago. She was 9 when she and her family, along with others, became part of the “boat people” exodus out of Vietnam during the late 1970’s through the early 1980’s. Her boat was threatened by pirates; several died at sea before they were rescued. She doesn’t speak of it much.
- At an Alexandria, Virginia gas station I asked the guy behind the counter where he was from. “Mars,” he said. He must have sensed my skepticism. “No, really. I’ll show you.” He pulled out his residency card, covered part of it up with his thumb so the only word I could read was “Alien.” “It doesn’t say Mars,” I pointed out. “If Immigration says I’m an ‘alien,’ I get to pick the planet.” I thought that over. “Good enough, and welcome to Earth.”
- I asked the young clerk at the library where she was from. She wanted to know why I thought she was from anywhere. “Is it my scarf?” No. There was a mosque nearby; scarves aren’t unusual. It was her accent, I said. Her hands fluttered. “Accent! I have an accent?” Up to that moment I thought so. All of a sudden I wasn’t so sure. I have serious hearing loss; I might be mistaken. No, she admitted, resigned, she did have an accent. “I was eleven when our family came here from the U.A.E. and,” she added, carefully enunciating every single word, “you have $1.50 in fines.”
- My wife taught a fifth grade classroom filled with Hispanic kids, most but not all with Mexican backgrounds. There was no way to know who had proper documents or who did not. Very few of the kids read or wrote Spanish. Every morning in class, legal or not, they stood with hand over heart and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I know a couple guys – nice guys otherwise – who think kids like those in my wife’s class room should be rounded up and deported, they and their families, period, no appeal. When did we become so cold? We are speaking of perhaps several millions – with kids – here, now. Perhaps we can credit them a little sweat equity toward permanent residency?
What about the border? Sure, clamp it down; build the wall. Perhaps it will permit a more orderly, safer entry under a more generous policy. But for now, while the law seems designed to condemn “illegals,” it provides no way to let anyone become legal. It is easier to use unlawful status as proof of moral deficiency instead of using it to expose the bankruptcy of our laws.
It is also well to remember what our experience with generations of immigrants has taught us. By the third generation, today’s spooky aliens have invariably assimilated and not a few have intermarried, and they have grandchildren who know little and care less about their country of origin. So, one more story:
- I called her grandma (mostly out of envy for my cousin who’s grandmother she really was). She came directly from Germany in the early 1900’s. She never learned to read or write English, but she laboriously learned to spell the names of her grandchildren, and mine, and spoke English with a thick German accent. During World War I she was suspected of being unpatriotic. The local grocery refused to sell to her (she relied on neighbors – those who would speak to her – for her shopping). By the time my cousin and I were born, we were third generation German. The few German novelty words we knew came from Grandma Kahle.