I am the granddaughter of an illegal immigrant. My paternal grandfather, Guiseppe Civiletti, made the journey from Sicily to America as a stowaway on a transatlantic cargo ship to begin a new life in the land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold. He landed in New York City in the 1920s and found employment as a dock worker in the city’s marine terminals, where he worked until his retirement. He met and married my grandmother, a U.S. citizen by birth, but he never became a citizen himself, though he loved this country fiercely. It was, he would often remind us, “the greatest nation on earth.”
I wonder what Grandpa would think of the immigration debate raging today. (He died at age 104 in 1998.) He was more of a law-and-order kind of guy than a liberal on various social issues, but I wonder how his own experience entering this country without documentation and settling here to work, marry and raise a family would have tempered his perspective. I wonder. Would he empathize with the young Hispanic men who leave their families behind in order to find work in a strange land to earn the money to feed their children back home? Or would he view them — non-Europeans — as different? I know the attacks on his beloved adopted country carried out on Sept. 11, 2001, had he lived to see them, would have devastated and angered him. And I could imagine him getting caught up in the fervor to seal our borders in the interest of homeland security. But then I wonder, would he reflect on the days he spent in the dark recesses below deck on a ship bound for a new land in the hopes of pursuing a better life and feel some twinge of kinship with these new immigrants?
We view the issue in black and white terms. It’s a homeland security issue. We need to protect our nation from future attacks. It’s an economic issue. Many industries rely on immigrant labor in order to thrive or even survive. It’s a law-and-order issue. We should not provide safe haven to people who knowingly violate our laws.
It’s a myriad of social issues. We are tottering under the burden of the influx of undocumented workers in our neighborhoods, the overcrowded rental housing, the uncompensated care provided by community hospitals, the extra expense of educating non-English-speaking children in our schools.
It’s an emotional issue. A whole package of complex, emotionally charged issues, in fact. Why can’t they respect our immigration laws? Why can’t they learn to speak our language? They look different, sound different. Why can’t they assimilate the way our immigrant ancestors did?
In the end, what most of us lose sight of, more often than not, is that this is about people, not about issues. Every one of the men we see pedaling to work by dawn’s early light has a story. Each of them has a family, a history, a motivation for seeking something in the United States of America that he can’t find at home. Mostly, it’s money.
Ramon is a 35-year-old Guatemalan. He immigrated to the U.S. illegally almost two years ago. He walked here. The journey on foot took more than a month. He is the married father of five. His youngest child was just 2 years old when he left in pursuit of earning a living in America that would enable him to feed his family in Guatemala. Ramon frets that his young son doesn’t remember him. He proudly shows me pictures of his children and construction-paper-and-crayon birthday cards they’ve sent him. “Papa we love you,” wrote his eldest, Isabel, age 9, in a neat, formal cursive script. “Thank you for working so hard for us.”
And work hard he does, virtually from dawn to dusk, earning $100 a day employed as a laborer by an American man who runs a Riverhead-based landscaping and masonry business. He is one of about eight or 10 Guatemalans working for this American businessman, who shuttles them to job sites in the back of a beat-up work van. He shouts at them, barking out orders. He refers to them crudely as “spics” and claims he doesn’t even know their names. It doesn’t matter, he says. They work. That’s all that matters.
Ramon and the others are happy — delighted even — for the chance to work. There is work back home, he says, but no money. The pay here is far more than anything they could ever earn back home. Ramon tells me he’s already sent more than $20,000 U.S. to his wife. He is proud and amazed that he could earn so much for his family here.
But it’s a bittersweet accomplishment. He misses them terribly, he tells me in faltering English, and his eyes well up as he gazes longingly at the tattered-edged photographs. He doesn’t know when or if he’ll see them again, because returning to Guatemala may mean never being able to come back to the U.S. again. He and the others I’ve spoken to are clearly here out of desperation, not out of disrespect for our laws. They came here, like nearly all other American immigrants, in search of a better life for their families. That’s all they really want.
In the emotionally charged debates about the social, economic and legal issues surrounding the influx of illegal immigrants across our southern borders, it would do us all well to pause for a moment and remember that simple fact. They are people, like the rest of us, like our immigrant ancestors, who came to America in search of a better life, to pursue “the American dream.” Surely America, the land of opportunity, a nation of immigrants, can find a way to welcome them.