by Kris Neri
I have a controversial confession to make: My grandfather was an illegal alien.
It didn’t used to be controversial. It didn’t even used to be interesting. Other people always had way better anecdotes about their granddads than I did, since mine died before I was born, leaving me absolutely no personal stories to tell about him. But lately, this fact has become quite controversial, and maybe even, uncomfortable for me.
Though my grandfather came to this country illegally in the hope of finding a better life than he could in his birth country, he married a legal resident, and eventually received U.S. citizenship. Still, if the beliefs touted in my home state of Arizona today had been around then, the government might have declared his marriage a sham. If Arizona had had its way decades ago, with its demand to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment — which declares that any child born on U.S. soil automatically receives citizenship — my mother might not have been recognized as a citizen, and she could have been deported to the country she’d never seen. Even more importantly, I would not have existed.
It’s hard to think of yourself as never having been born. It’s equally hard to accept that others might not see you as belonging in the country you regard as a central part of your identify. I’m a proud American, an informed voter and I think I’ve made valuable contributions to our society. But the laws and beliefs of too many in my home state would have denied my family three generations of making those contributions.
Don’t get me wrong — other than sometimes driving with a lead foot, I follow the law. I believe a nation has a right to secure its borders, and I don’t think people should be crossing them illegally. I’m also aware that it could present a threat to our national security. But I also believe in the words on the Statute of Liberty, Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Surely that describes most of the poor wretches who illegally cross our borders. I also understand that immigration is a complex issue. If we didn’t create a demand for cheap labor, if we didn’t have so many low-end jobs that most Americans don’t want to do, would people keep streaming into the U.S. for that work? If we didn’t have cheap laborers to pick our lettuce, would we be paying ten bucks a head instead of a dollar or two?
I also have to wonder if it matters that my grandfather’s name was Patrick O’Brien not Juan Gomez, that he came here illegally from Ireland, not Mexico. That his skin was fair, not brown. That he spoke English from the moment he stepped illegally off that merchant vessel that docked in New York. Is that what’s at the root of the anti-immigrant fever?
Maybe, maybe not. While I’ve never felt any scorn as a result of my ethnicity, history tells us that when the Irish were streaming into this country in great numbers, they were also reviled, that postings for jobs often read, “No Irish Need Apply.” (I must confess I learned most of that history from Rhys Bowen’s wonderful Molly Murphy series, not my family.) Maybe the anger we’re seeing today is simply the initiation rite we demand of every group that comes to this country, before we accept them as our own. Or maybe it’s simply that in bad economic times, we need to blame someone else for our troubles.
Perhaps the problem is that when we get angry at whole groups, we fail to remember that those groups are made up of individuals, not too different from us. A wonderful book that depicts a small band of folks who cross our southern border, and which tells its tale with warmth and whimsy and charm, is Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. Of course, the migrants who cross the border in Into the Beautiful North don’t come here to work, but to recruit former Mexican illegals as for-hire soldiers, to bring them back to their town in Mexico to fight the drug cartels. Not exactly the usual situation, but I defy anyone to read Into the Beautiful North and not see the immigration situation at least a little differently.
Granted, every group reshapes our country a little. And change threatens some people, and threatened people come out fighting. But do we really want to deny ourselves the work that today’s migrants, documented and otherwise, perform, not to mention to the contributions they and their descendants might make for generations to come?
I don’t. But maybe I don’t get a vote.