May 26, 2005
Shadows Obscure Illegal Aliens’ Hopes
In speaking about illegal aliens, President Bush says the time has come to bring "millions of hard-working men and women out of the shadows."
However, Republican leaders in Congress claim that Bush's proposals would reward lawbreakers. They soon plan to pass legislation tightening the legal and physical screws on illegal immigrants. The idea is to make the bill veto-proof by tying it to emergency funding for U.S. troops in Iraq.
For me, the issue is of more than passing interest. It was to California, long an immigration battleground, that I came to the United States in 1941 as the only child of illegal aliens.
When war erupted in Europe, we fled Poland, a day's march ahead of the racing German armies. For months, we crossed the vast, white Siberian plains. We lived as strangers among the Japanese, even as they prepared to attack America. Finally, just before their dive bombers hit the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, we disembarked from a Japanese ship in San Francisco.
"You can't stay," an immigration officer told my parents after we had crossed the country by train to New York. "Your [one-week] transit visa [to the Dominican Republic] has expired. You must leave at once."
My parents spoke little English. They were broke. They had no pull with big shots. But it had taken some guts for them to fend off the Nazis, the communists and the Japanese. Measured against what they'd been through, Ellis Island was a snap.
Yes, they had the right to deport us. But they could do so only by sending us back to our homeland, Poland, then under the Nazi heel, or to the country from which we had come, Japan.
At many hearings, dad stood fast. Finally, near the end of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an order that let some illegal aliens use the unused quota slots of people trapped overseas by the fighting.
Just before my citizenship papers came through, I enrolled at the Bronx High School of Science. There I met a pretty ninth-grader from Brooklyn, the youngest of six kids. Her parents and brothers were born in Italy.
In time, she became a doctor -- and my wife. In 1946, her mother had gone back to aid war-weary relatives. When it came time to return, U.S. officials in Naples said nothing doing, she was an illegal alien.
One of my wife's brothers knew a senior congressman in Washington. He told him that nobody had asked Dominick whether he, too, was an illegal alien before he fell in 1944 on a Normandy beachhead. So now wasn't the time to raise that question with his mom.
The congressman made a few calls. The word went back to Naples: Let her come home.
One member of the big Italian family into which I married also married a doctor. She is black and works in a big public hospital in San Diego. She tells me that poor blacks are unable to get good care there, because illegal Hispanics have swamped the facility.
My niece-in-law is not at all unique among Americans who are fed up with the idea of welfare for foreigners. But the truth is that many of those folks want little more than to get to earn a few bucks as best they can, and seek a better life for their kids.
That is why we came. That is why my wife's family came. And that is why our son is proud to be a first-generation American.
Andy Glass is managing editor of The Hill, a weekly Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress. Previously, he served for 28 years as a reporter, bureau chief and senior correspondent for Cox Newspapers in its Washington Bureau.