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Who am I to Tell Them to Leave?

Lewis, Scott. "Who am I to Tell Them to Leave?" Voice of San Diego, 28 August 2006.


If you're like me, you don't see your family as much as you should. You mother, father, grandparents and others are far enough away that you have to schedule and plan and spend money to see them even as little as you do.

Not too long ago, I did that. I don't quite remember when it was -- it may have been, in fact, during one of my recent cross-country moves that I was able to stop in one of the "fly-over" states to see my grandmother -- my father's mother.

She and I got to talking and she told me a story that I'm still thinking about months later.

It was about her mother, who was a German immigrant.

I had always had a keen perception of my family's particular connection to Europe, but not from my father's side of the family. Instead, I had romanticized many times over the plight of my mother's family who, through various ports of entry, all made it to the United States from Italy in the first quarter of the 20th Century.

I had heard the story countless times, for instance, of Francesco Bondi, my mother's grandfather, who had, as a teenage boy, left Italy on a ship to South America. Soon after he got there -- and nobody remembers exactly where there was -- he decided to take another ship to New Orleans. Finally, he ended up in Colorado working in a mine.

And I had heard the story of her other Italian grandfather who had changed the family's name from Rossi to Rose to anglicize it and better fit in.

All of this connection to Italy intrigued me while I was in college immersing myself in Romance languages and traveling as much as I could.

But I had never thought much about how my father's family had ended up where it did.

That is, until I talked to my grandmother a few months ago.

Her mother has a story that rivals any. My great grandmother's family was of German origin but they were living in Russia. The Volga Germans -- as they and their countrymen were known -- spoke German and lived with German customs but in the Volga River valley in Russia. The Volga Germans left Russia in a steady stream in the late 19th Century and, by 1906, my great grandmother's family had made the choice to flee as well.

But when their ship reached the United States, there was a problem: Each member of the family was suffering from an eye infection and they were not allowed to enter the country.

That is, each member of the family except my, then 13-year-old, great grandmother.

Her parents chose to do something extraordinary: They decided to leave their young girl in the United States and they got on another boat bound for Argentina. She would have a better life, they reasoned.

She never spoke to them again.

As was apparently a normal event at the time, a family in Colorado adopted my great-grandmother and they did so not necessarily out of an overarching desire to help the young immigrant. The desire was more clearly based on wanting some help with the backbreaking work of tending to a farm.

My great grandmother ended up running away from that home with a traveling shepherd who was many decades her senior. They married and had a little girl who became my grandmother.

It's an amazing story. I was transfixed. It was one of those stories that everyone else in the family heard long ago -- it's not that it is unremarkable to them, it's just part of what they've heard about and known for decades.

I had never felt such a vivid link to the past and I had never quite understood very well how I ended up where I did and now. They wouldn't want me to dwell on it -- that would defeat the purpose of the sacrifice.

I've worked with and been friends with undocumented workers who would start one job at 8 a.m. leave at 5 p.m. and then enter another job at 6 p.m. and put in another full day before going to bed and starting over again. They were elbow deep in the kind of drudgery I can hardly imagine preferring over abject poverty.

People who do that are, like my family three generations ago, sacrificing their lives so that their children's children might someday live like me. And every time I start to embrace in myself a desire to crack down on immigration, I remember that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do that and not be the embodiment of hypocrisy. Who am I to tell an immigrant that, now that my family is settled and accomplished, the doors are closed?

My inner capitalist chips further doubt to the idea that we're facing some kind of crisis and that illegal immigration is an unwelcome invasion. I was not at all surprised this week that the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce endorsed the U.S. Senate's immigration reform bill as opposed to the harsher House of Representatives. This move to embrace a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants was a bold step for the normally meek chamber and it puts that organization directly at odds with people like newly elected U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray.

We hear a lot these days about how Democrats nationally have trouble coming to consensus on important issues. On immigration, the Republicans are deeply split.

The business community and Libertarians everywhere recognize that you can't, on one hand, support free trade across borders and, on the other hand, effectively stop the free trade of labor without causing more social problems than you intend to prevent.

Businesses want a healthy supply of labor from which they can choose their employees.

These people want jobs. We have businesses that want to hire them. It's a natural fit.

What isn't natural is leaving these workers in the shadows. We cannot tolerate the status quo. Neither their best interests, nor ours, are served when immigrants see themselves as unwelcome and unrecognized guests.

I see problems: overcrowding, urban sprawl, strained school systems and, the worst, a hidden workforce whose members rely on a black market for their counterfeit documentation. Their social progress and assimilation is weighed down perpetually by the albatross of their illegitimacy.

As I try to think for myself about how best the country can end the status quo, I'll never be able to shake the conviction that people like me -- with similar backgrounds as me -- have little right to tell these immigrant workers that they missed their chance and they now need to leave.

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