Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Immigration Part 7: My Family's Story


This post is part of my Immigration Series. Please read the introduction, particularly the disclaimer. 




In the first part, I introduced the topic.

In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.

In the third part, I detailed the racist history of immigration restrictions dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present.

In the fourth part, I looked at the realities of current immigration law, which provides no legal path to entry for the vast majority of those who wish to immigrate.

In the fifth part, I examined the openly racist goals of the Trump Administration.

In the sixth part, I looked at the rough breakdown of immigration views on the right and left, and why this has meant that we cannot - or will not - fix our broken system.




Other issues have taken our national attention away from immigration. While the Trump Administration continues to be viciously racist and anti-immigrant, a certain pandemic combined with civil unrest over ongoing racist police brutality have taken the headlines. Still, immigration will continue to be a long term issue. 


I want to take the time to give my own family’s history. I tell this history as I heard it passed down to me, which means I cannot vouch for the accuracy of every detail. It’s oral history, and I believe it to be true in the key facts, if not in every single detail. 




I am, like all citizens of the United States except for the Native Americans, the descendant of immigrants, voluntary or enslaved. As far as I know (and I can’t be certain), I have no Native American ancestry. Furthermore, none of my relatives came over on the Mayflower, were Puritans, or are related to royalty. In fact, my ancestors pretty much were the epitome of poor, downtrodden, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Or, as our current administration might put it, we came from the “shithole countries” of our time, were politically unpopular religious fanatics, and were about as “worthless” and “suspect” as immigrants could be. 


Let me start with my father’s side of the family. My paternal great-grandfather was Swedish. He was a dirt poor preacher in Eastern Montana. My late grandfather told us plenty of stories about near-starvation, how he kept alive on the onions and soured milk donated by desperately poor parishioners who had nothing else to give. I can’t remember a whole lot about the history on that side. H---- and I--- were (if I recall), second or third generation immigrants, and nobody who came before was anyone notable. As far as we know, they came over during the 1880s or 90s during a wave of Scandinavian immigration. The usual pressures applied to us: overpopulation, crop failures, starvation, etc. The usual story. Life sucked, kids died due to malnutrition, and so they left. North America was a big place, and the Native Americans were easily evicted, so...well, you can guess the rest. 


My S------- ancestors ended up in Eastern Montana, where they settled and raised families. On that branch, I come from a long line of ministers, I am told. If anything, I credit that for my innate sense of justice and morality. It is from my ancestors that I take inspiration to be a decent, moral person even when it costs me. 




On my paternal grandmother’s side, I am German. Specifically, German Mennonite. The T------ were part of the Anabaptist sect known as Mennonites. Most people know them today because of the Amish, which are a particular (and peculiar) subsect of the greater Mennonite tradition. While our branch of the Mennonites never rejected technology, from what I can tell, we were adamantly pacifist and non-violent. 


Our branch of the family was part of a German Mennonite community that became quite unpopular in Germany because of our resistance to military conscription. Sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s, my ancestors fled to the southern Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), where they acquired land, and lived in peace for a while. 


Then, in the 1870s, they lost their exemption from military service, and fled Russia to the United States, eventually settling in Eastern Montana. There, they took advantage of the Homestead Act (in practice, open only to whites…), used government loans to get a grub stake, and established themselves as farmers. (If you ever hear reference to “hard red [Russian] wheat,” that’s our contribution to this country. We are inordinately proud of that fact, and a bit smug that Russia underwent famine in the 20th century because they evicted us and our knowledge of wheat horticulture. Immigrants: we get it done!


In addition to the above government programs, my family on that side has benefited from the public education system, farm and ranch subsidies, and more. (So much for welfare, right?) My relatives still farm and ranch property near Savage, Montana, beneficiaries still of the Homestead Act. 




The story of my maternal grandfather’s side of the family is much the same as the above. Also German Mennonites, they were part of the same Russian community, and fled in the 1880s. However, they settled in Kansas. There are plenty of pictures and stories on this branch. Two generations of men with unusual names from the Bible, and eventually my great-grandfather, who was apparently stung by a scorpion in a dugout on a Kansas homestead as an infant near the turn of the 20th Century. He survived and had 10 kids - we are a fertile family. 


The E----- side of the family is big, and we kept records. So I know, for example, that I am related to Bob Dornan, which is not something I am proud of. (Not that I have met him. Something like a 10th cousin, I believe…) 


For what it is worth, “E-----” is one of those last names which was invented at Ellis Island. The original was pronounced something like “Eggdyosh” in pronunciation - something German and not “American” enough for the clerk who checked us in.


As you might have guessed, this does mean that my parents were probably related somewhere way back on the German side of each branch. I think the best guess is 7th cousins or some such. Nobody has solid knowledge, but somewhere back in Russia in the early 1800s, they were part of the same greater community. 


Like my T------ ancestors, the E------ ancestors gained access to the middle class because of the Homestead Act, a major government program not available to immigrants today. 

 This is how my ancestors came to America: through Ellis Island in the late 1880s




Ah, the final branch. This is the most mysterious and unknown side of my ancestry. My great-grandfather was a Wedgwood, a member of that illustrious English family that made the famous china. Josiah Wedgwood, legend of England and still familiar today. In fact, my mother got a few hundred bucks from the estate of some scion of the Wedgwoods who died childless decades ago. Because of this connection, I am also related to Charles Darwin. Very distantly related.


I don’t know all the details of this connection and how my English ancestors came to the United States, although it would have occurred sometime in the 1800s. My own guess is that we were descended from some sort of disreputable bastard cousin of old Josiah, and came to the US because we had no inheritance and no future and a worse reputation. My great grandfather did serve in WW I, got gassed in the trenches and never really recovered. Drank and smoked himself to death, and left my grandmother damaged in many ways. Every family has its skeletons... 


And then there is the R-------- side. Nobody knows who my great-grandmother’s father was (and she died long before I was born.) She was a bastard in the traditional sense, with an unknown father and God only knows what in her ancestry. Although based on skin color, it was damn lily white. Maybe a drunken Irishman, maybe a drunken Scot. God only knows, but more than likely booze was involved...and an infamous seduction. As I said, this is the part of the family that doesn’t get talked about anymore. 




So anyway, that’s my story. Of the people we can trace, everyone came here in the 1870s through the 1890s at the latest. During that period, white people could immigrate without restriction, and then get citizenship five years later with few questions asked. 


And that’s what we did. We came here. We got some free land from the government. We farmed it. We sent the kids to free public schools and got some semblance of an education. My father’s generation was the first truly college educated generation. My generation was the first to get graduate degrees (at least until some of my father’s generation went back to college after retirement…) We are boring, ordinary middle class white Americans. Nothing you would write home about, but generally solid citizens, tending to contribute to society, stay out of legal trouble for the most part, and raising our families like ordinary people. 


But the story wouldn’t have happened today.


My ancestors - none of them - would have been admitted to the US legally under current law. 




Oh, I can’t forget to tell you about another family skeleton! 


I’m not going to give every sordid detail, but here goes:


My late paternal grandfather was a missionary to the Philippines. (My dad was born there, but is a US citizen under the laws - see part 2 of this series.) During his time there, he engaged in a little bit of extracurricular activity, so to speak. He knocked up a young woman who was a house servant, who then bore his child. This scandal led to his dismissal from his post, his return to the US, and about 18 years of irresponsible behavior after he essentially had a nervous breakdown. (A lot about the dysfunction in our extended family can be attributed to my grandmother’s untimely death and my grandfather’s episode of bad behavior. I loved him, but he had some really glaring faults. And I don’t think, given the circumstances, that the sex could have been considered consensual by today’s standards.) 


So now, we have a Filipino girl with an inconvenient child, a father who has fled back to the US, and a big ol’ mess. As usual in our world, the older white male skates, and the consequences happen to the poor, young, brown female. To prevent really horrible things from happening to the mother, the child is adopted by her parents, my grandfather never acknowledges his paternity, and that branch of my family remains in the Philippines. 


Many, many years later, after being widowed twice, my grandfather, for the first time in this tale, makes an altruistic decision, and marries the woman he knocked up, and brings her to the United States. Soon afterward, he goes to his reward, and the rest of us have a fun mess. The child was adopted out to relatives, officially, and isn’t legally related to my grandfather. So a bloody immigration mess results, and the upshot is that despite the best efforts of some truly fine attorneys, there is no legal way for a Filipino family to reunite with their American relatives. And so there you are.


I will confess that prior to this mess, the younger me really believed a lot of the right wing propaganda about immigration. I naively thought that my relatives could simply get on a waiting list, and come here 5ish years later. 




There is no waiting list. 


As I will point out in a later post, there is, in fact, no legal path for them to come here under current law. They are stuck there, despite all our efforts, their efforts (including learning English and getting professional licenses.) That is what our current laws say. “Stay out, f-ing foreigner!”  


[Just a hint: please don’t give me your magic solution. Some well respected immigration attorneys from a major metropolitan area spent many hours working on this case. The problem isn’t lack of representation. It’s the fucked up immigration laws we have combined with some poor decisions on the part of my grandfather, who is dead and therefore can’t help at this point.] 




So there you have it. My family’s story.  I believe it is relevant to our immigration discussion because it illustrates the massive change in law and policy between the 1880s and the present time. It also illustrates just how the current debate leverages falsehoods about the past - including the government benefits whites received in the past - to slander and exclude current (non-white) immigrants. 


I’ll talk more in future posts about our current laws, and also about some of the falsehoods about immigrants past and present that the Right insists on repeating over and over. 




I recently read a book about Filipino immigrants that let me to revisit and finish this post. America Is Not The Heart by Elaine Castillo really brought back some memories, and reminded me of my own connections. 


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