Last installment in a series on illegal immigration
In this nation of immigrants, most people can count on one hand the number of generations since their family tree found American soil. The struggle to immigrate and integrate into America is an ongoing narrative.
Of course not all arrival’s come through our front door. The Trib’s comprehensive article, describing Oscar Campos Estrada’s journey from illegal entry to a deportation trial, is a peek inside the world of illegal immigration. It is a bizarre, contradictory reality that resembles the land Alice found when she fell down the rabbit hole.
My last immigration column, in which I described working alongside federal agents in pursuit of gang members (who were also illegal aliens), was from the opposite perspective of Campos Estrada. My own family’s story, however, shares some overlap.
My father was born in rural Ireland and eventually made his way to the U.S. as a young man in his 20’s. The first leg of his trip ended in Toronto where his boat docked. From there he took jobs as an iron worker, working west to Vancouver, B.C. and then north to the Arctic Circle. Somewhere along the way he met my mother, a bank teller from Vancouver.
It was dangerous work – four of his friends fell to their death from a Vancouver bridge now known as the Iron Workers Memorial - and he was eventually sidelined in a Seattle hospital with a back injury. They finally settled down in San Francisco, a town quickly filling with new arrivals from Italy, the Philippines and Ireland. Their children blended into the city’s countless Catholic schools, where nuns ruled the classroom with a religious fervor for education that was often delivered at the end of a ruler.
If our bond as first generation Americans had a darker aspect, it was the unspoken fear of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS was not a suitable topic for conversation, except in whispered tones outside church or at family gatherings. Since I had been born in a San Francisco hospital, this was never a personal fear. For my extended family, however, this became a problem.
My father was one of thirteen children, so our house was often a way station for itinerant Irish cousins. Uncles and aunts took turns taking in these young people, mostly men, who would immediately find work swinging a hammer. Was it coincidence that INS agents were more apt to drop in on an Irish contractor’s job site? Or that certain cousins would make themselves scarce whenever a government car pulled up? I have no answers, only guesses. I can say that my father always, ALWAYS kept his green card handy.
Stories like these were common, but none so upsetting as an incident which occurred years after I moved from home. I received an alarming phone call from my mother, who told me in a quavering voice that several armed men were banging on the front door. I told her to call the police, then sat in helpless panic seven hundred miles away, waiting for her to call me back.
The men were INS agents. They had banged loudly on our front door, had yelled out an Irish name (unknown to anyone in my family) and had demanded entry. They eventually realized they were at the wrong address and left without apology. My parents lost a lot of faith in their new country that day, and our broken door was replaced with iron bars.
Though signs such as “Irish need not apply” have long since disappeared, prejudice against a shifting demographic of immigrants exists. It affects the discourse on immigration, and it remains a divisive topic. And a national problem.
As a nation of immigrants, we deserve a clear and visionary immigration policy that reflects our global origins as well as our freedoms that are wholly American.