In May of 1940, with German bombs falling on their home city of Antwerp, Belgium, my maternal grandparents packed the family car and, with my 3-year-old mother, drove away from everything they knew: their history, their relatives, their wedding presents. My grandmother, in particular, regretted leaving behind a cute tennis outfit she’d been wearing that spring. “It had been such wonderful weather,” she always told me.
She also regretted filling the car’s trunk — which might have carried more precious cargo — with diapers that my mother would grow out of. But at 29 years old, my grandmother could not anticipate what was about to befall her little family. In the event of an emergency or a crisis, she reasoned, you could always use diapers.
Immigration is the most dramatic of American narratives. It involves hardship and persecution, and then — finally — relief and the opportunity to start again. When we put our hands over our hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag, we remember the people whose struggles gave us everything.
Their stories revolve around moments, crisis points: the decision to pack diapers instead of silverware; the lifelong yearning for a tennis outfit; a searing memory of weather.
“I only remember saying goodbye to everyone, boarding a plane and crying because I was terrified of planes,” writes a 13-year-old girl, who was born in Mexico and came here illegally when she was 5, on the Web site My Immigrant Story. “When we arrived, I remember it was really cold.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has called a bipartisan immigration proposal “unfair,” because he says it privileges America’s 11 million illegal immigrants over the immigrants who live here already and have obeyed the law.
“To allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path,” he said last week, “is both inconsistent with the rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally.”
The political and popular momentum is unquestionably behind reform, and Cruz has been duly rebuked — by members of his own party — for his comments.
Still, the question he raises is a reasonable one. Does a plan that ultimately gives citizenship to that 13-year-old Mexican girl disrespect or do injustice to the memory of my grandmother — and all the other immigrants over the generations who played by the rules and risked their lives to come here?
Cruz, who is a Southern Baptist, wants technical fairness, which would be an understandable impulse if America were kindergarten. But America is a much bigger idea than that.
“The key to this conversation is not to begin with the legal issue,” said Daniel Carroll Rodas, distinguished professor of the Old Testament at Denver Seminary. “You need to get there. You don’t start there. You start with these immigrants as people.”
Genesis, Carroll Rodas explains, says that all people are created in God’s image; laws must be built to recognize and harness that human potential. Good immigration policy is not a matter of following laws, he argues. It’s a matter of building laws that reflect what he calls “America’s soul.”
It took more than a year for my mother and her parents to escape Europe, a year that involved driving and hiding, car trouble and the kindness of strangers. Their route — through Belgium, France (then occupied), Spain and finally Portugal, where they boarded a ship for America — was traced by thousands of Belgian refugees, who traded intelligence through the grapevine. In which French city was there a bureaucrat willing to give exit visas to Jews? How should one wrangle an audience with him? How might one obtain an entry visa to Spain before one’s French exit visa expired? There’s a story that my mother and the other Jewish children on the journey played “consul” instead of fairy-tale pretend games. There was the good consul. And the villainous one.
Nearly half of the Jews in Belgium perished. My grandparents were lucky. They were young and persistent. They were able to elude the attention of the French police. They were lucky in other ways as well: My grandfather had a younger brother who was a U.S. citizen. He came to New York first and was able to pave the way. This luck was the difference between life and death, and my grandmother knew it. She was the proudest of Americans and, forever more, when she could not sleep, she would count the U.S. presidents backward, in order, and then forward again. Her understanding of fairness would have come not from the Bible or even from the law but from her own experience. She would never, I am sure, begrudge that 13-year-old girl her citizenship. She would want her to learn English, as she did, and raise a family and thrive.