Family history

While I was in Switzerland, I read some essays my brother had found, one by my grandmother, one by my grandfather’s sister, talking about how they came to the United States.

My grandmother’s family came from Russia/Belarus. She talked about relatives who sewed clothes and raised horses. It was when my great-grandfather’s last horse died that he could no longer make a living, and came here, saving money to send for his wife and children–including my grandmother, who had never met him–later.

My grandfather’s family came from Poland. My great-aunt talked of a mother who smuggled cigarettes and alcohol to survive until they could afford leave for the United States, about traveling from city to city until they could find the proper authorities to give them their exit visas, of time spent in Paris when they ran out of money after all. I don’t remember now if she mentioned pogroms in her account, too, or if I knew about them because my mother had mentioned them.

These are my ancestors: fleeing economics and politics, crossing an ocean and a border, coming to the United States without any specialized skills save for a willingness to do what work they could find, to press women’s coats and build boilers and generally do work that the more long-term U.S. residents who weren’t sure they wanted my family here were nonetheless unwilling to do for themselves.

The only difference between my family and most of those crossing a desert and a border today is, there were no laws yet telling my family they couldn’t come. There were laws telling other people’s families they couldn’t come by then. And by World War II my relatives would mostly be excluded, too–but in that time and place, they weren’t. Yet even had their entering the U.S. been illegal, they might well have done it anyway. They had to go somewhere, after all.

I keep hearing that the solution to the current border situation isn’t easy and isn’t simple. And I keep thinking, it is simple: just stop turning people away. Work out a system for determining whether someone has an actual criminal history in their country of origin, and in the absence of same, open the doors. An open immigration policy would present some challenges, sure, but I don’t think they’d be any greater than the challenges we face now. And we’ve done it before, and overcome those challenges, and our country has been the better for it.

We’ve been here before. The present day is not so special a case as we think.

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