Naomi’s Immigration Story: No human being is illegal

No matter what side of the immigration and citizen debate one gravitates to, the inability of our nation’s leaders to find consensus has been distressing to watch. During one of our team meetings, we found ourselves sharing our own stories of what the word immigration means to us. We thought we’d share a little more about our team members over the course of time.

Naomi

To me, immigration is both an old and a new story. It is beautiful and complicated and controversial. Immigration has given birth to multiculturalism, but we are far from the dream many have fought and advocated for. Martin Luther King said: “It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not in favor of justice for all people.”

My family’s immigration story was a prominent part of my childhood. My father taught me Yiddish nursery rhymes and I ate my great aunts’ Polish stuffed cabbage and chopped liver. My U.S.-born parents told us about their families’ treacherous boat rides from Eastern Europe to the U.S. in the early 1900s. I learned that our family’s last names were shortened and “Americanized” at Ellis Island. And that my great uncle peddled ties in Cuba for a few years before gaining admission to the U.S. when his boat was turned away because of quotas.  

This was taken around 1928 on the way to/from Russia. My mother’s father is in the center without the hat — he originally came to the U.S. in 1919 at age 14, and went back to Russia briefly to visit his mother and family.

Mine are the stories of families who had the opportunity to leave their home countries and come to the U.S. for “a better life.” Had they stayed in their Russia, Poland, or Austria, they might have died in the Holocaust (as some of my family did). Their new life here wasn’t without struggle and antisemitism, but they had opportunity, they had family, and they worked hard.

Immigration continues to play a prominent role in my life today – and is shaping the story that my daughter will tell her family. My husband, Carlos, came to the U.S. from Nicaragua at age 25. Later, he became a naturalized citizen. To Carlos, “immigration means moving to another country in search of new opportunities that your country doesn’t give you.” Development and opportunity in an already-poor Nicaragua were further limited by the civil war of the 1980s. Carlos’s own politically-divided family reflected what was going on countrywide. Like many U.S. immigrants, Carlos brought with him beautiful traditions and culture, but also trauma from personal, family, and country circumstances.

I am grateful for his citizenship, because the situation in the U.S. today is precarious for many immigrants. Carlos and I know personal stories of celebration, struggle, triumph, and tragedy from migrant and seasonal farmworkers we worked with in the Northeast. Long before the caravans, travel bans, and seemingly impromptu immigration policy changes, hard-working families were and continue to be torn apart by raids and deportations.

So, the subject of immigration does bring warm family stories to mind, but also an onslaught of questions. I believe that I am here because of the “luck of the draw.” Certainly not because I am more or less deserving than anyone else. When did it become about being better than… or more deserving than? Or about taking land from and violating the very people who were here long before any of our families immigrated to America? When did “American” start to mean “from the U.S.?” And when did people become “illegal?” In the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, “You who are so-called ‘illegal aliens’ must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

[Picture above: This is my father’s family, probably around 1927 in New York. I knew my great uncle (little boy) and the 2 women standing closest to him, my great aunts, who were like my grandmothers. I’m told that the clothing was rented for the occasion/photo, because they wouldn’t have been able to afford such nice clothes.]