For the uninitiated, “Memere” is the word my family uses for grandmother. My father’s mother, who died in 1988, was born 125 years ago today in Richibucto, New Brunswick, Canada. The area was beautiful but economically poor and as a young woman she emmigrated to Garder, Massachusetts where she spent the rest of her life. She got a job as a chambermaid at the Colonial Hotel, met a bellhop, and they married in 1918. They raised 2 daughters and 5 sons. Of the sons, 4 of them served in uniform in either World War II or Korea, or both.
I’m thinking of this against the background of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Arizona vs. United States. Almost everyone agrees that our immigration policy is a mess, but the battle of the soundbites is clearly being won by the anti immigration nutcases. Their argument begins and ends with the phrase: “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” The funny thing is that most of us are here because our ancestors came here from other countries.
The nutcases argue that our ancestors came legally and that makes all the difference. They argue that those who are current undocumented workers didn’t take the legal path. They, in a sense, cut in line. Well these are silly arguments. When my grandmother came to the US around 1915 there were no laws governing immigration from Canada. If you could get here (and were white) you could stay: you could find a place to live, get a job, meet someone, and begin the process of becoming an American. That didn’t change until 1921 and the Emergency Quota Act set limits on how many people could come here. Since then anyone who wants to come here has to compete for a spot. Frankly, if you’re an engineer from Bangalore (and Qualcomm wants to hire you) there is a line for you to get in. If you’re a farmworker from Mexico (or a chambermaid from Canada), there is no line. You can’t “cut in line” because there is no line to cut in.
I’m grateful my grandmother had the good fortune of coming here before her skills were evaluated and ranked. Her children were part of the generation who lifted the country out of the Great Depression and fought a world war that ensured a happy ending for the 20th Century.
When I look at men and women who are this generation’s immigrants I see my grandmother. Regardless of their legal status.
So should you.