As an immigrant—a legal immigrant—of the United States, the polarizing debates regarding the approaching caravan (or invasion) of approximately 7,000 migrants are perplexing, frustrating, and alarming to say the least.
Looking through the lens of an immigrant, whose ancestors were all immigrants from Europe to America or Brazil, I cannot support this “tolerant” idea that thousands of people can just step over our borders and call America home.
Is it heartbreaking to see the desperate faces of most people who are involved in this pilgrimage? Yes, it is heart-wrenching. But does their plight and suffering justify breaking the law? Are all seeking asylum, or just hoping for a better life?
But how repugnant it is to watch those who wave flags of the very country they are fleeing from, demand entry here as if they are entitled to do so. Never mind chanting against our government, threatening their way in with rocks in fists.
No. This is not “the wretched refuse” Lady Liberty is lifting her “lamp beside the golden door” for.
How is it possible though, for an immigrant like myself not be supportive of the majority of these poor people who only want a better life for themselves and their children?
Because it is not legal. And it is unfair to millions of people paying their dues and waiting in line to legally immigrate to the United States.
Every single one of my ancestors paid a great price for the privilege (not their right) of becoming an immigrant with the dream of having a better life. None broke through borders. None broke laws of the land to gain entry.
Although my parents, sister and I arrived in the United States from Brazil in 1968, my father’s maternal grandmother had been a legal immigrant from Portugal, living in Massachusetts since 1909.
Her daughter, my father’s mother, was born in Taunton, Massachusetts in 1911. At the age of six, she returned to Portugal with her parents. Through a very convoluted story, my great-grandmother returned to the U.S. alone, leaving her husband and two daughters behind in Portugal.
In 1928, my American born grandmother immigrated to Brazil. It was not until almost fifty years later, in 1966, that she returned to her country of birth, reuniting with her mother in Massachusetts. Even though she never lost her American citizenship, she still had to go through legal channels to return to the United States.
As far as my father, whose mother was an American born citizen, he too had to wait years before being granted a visa for himself and his family. Not only that, he could only enter this country with a guaranteed work contract, and a Letter of Support from his grandmother. Still, this process took years.
And, we thank God every day for this blessing to not only be legal immigrants in the best country in the world but also to be proudly nationalized United States citizens living the Great American Dream.
While searching online for my great-grandmother’s immigration information, I found her records on Ellis Island Record Search.
My great-grandmother Rita Marques arrived in New York on August 2, 1909, at the age of sixteen. Her widowed mother was fifty-five. Her two sisters were eighteen and fourteen. A seven-year-old nephew also accompanied the four women. (See Index No. 10: Marques)
They arrived on the S. S. Venezia (Fabre). And once going through the immigration inspections, they were registered under the “Record of Aliens Held for Special Inquiry.” Cause of Detention: L.P.C. (Liable to become a Public Charge).
Because the Immigration Act of 1882 stated the following: “Immigrants who were unable to take care of themselves without becoming a public charge were unsuitable for American citizenship and therefore denied their entry. In addition to LPC, the act initiated a fifty-cent head tax which would be used for bureaucratic processes. The act also denied entry of convicts.”
Furthermore, because my great-great grandmother was older, she classified under “Conditions for Denial: Individuals who have physical or mental ailments along with pregnant women are most likely to be proposed as a public charge. Immigrants who were found with physical or mental ailments were prospective for exclusion. Their ailments were seen to affect their ability to obtain employment and thus qualified them as a public charge.”
My great-grandmother loved to tell us the story of how the immigration officials tested her mother for the ability to work by watching her perform calisthenics, and run back and forth in the Great Hall.
“Conditions for Denial” also included: “Unmarried pregnant women seeking to migrate into the United States were presumed a public charge on account of their condition. These women were excluded from entry and were barred from arriving into the United States. It is noted that their condition presumed them as a public charge because no one would employ them and thus the government would initiate care for them. In addition, childrearing amongst immigrant women is also presumptive causes of public charge. Although support for children was legal, undocumented women were denied legal citizenship due to the public assistance that their children received. In these cases, and those of physical and mental ailments would render an obligation to the government, however, the government sought no obligation in this manner. Immigrants who arrived with only twenty-five to forty dollars and with no source of employment were deemed liable to become a public charge. Immigrants were investigated through means of competent evidence. Competent evidence includes the following: Health, family assets, financial status, education, skills, and age.”
“Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars ($600 in 2015 adjusted for inflation). Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than 3,000 would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered likely to become a public charge.”
“About 2% were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity. Ellis Island was sometimes known as “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island” because of the 2% who were not admitted after the long transatlantic voyage. The Kissing Post is a wooden column outside the Registry Room, where new arrivals were greeted by their relatives and friends, typically with tears, hugs, and kisses.”
A twenty-five-year-old stowaway male and a nineteen-year-old female traveling with a nine-year-old boy were deported four days after being held along with my great-grandmother and family.
My great-grandmother and her family were held for “Special Inquiry” for two days. They were granted entry only when a family member in Massachusetts was contacted, and financially vouched for them.
Yes, Lady Liberty declared with “silent lips”: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—except those liable to become public charge.
In “The New Colossus” poem by Emma Lazarus, she wrote: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”
History cannot be revised to fit our current narrative or political views.
“A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.”
― Ronald Reagan
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