Undated photo of a group of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York. They are waiting in line to begin immigration proceedings. About 16 million people came through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. (AP Photo/AP)
July 25, 2014

Colman McCarthy is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Post.

As the politics of immigration play out, grimly so, and with the send-’em-all-back crowd and the build-bigger-walls cabal vying for control of the outcome, little attention goes to the justice-seeking lawyers in the border states. As an admirer of their work, I confess to partiality: My father, born in 1888, was an immigration lawyer.

The border state in which he practiced in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s was New York. His clients were not Hondurans, Salvadorans or Guatemalans but Slovaks, Poles, Italians, Greeks and Irish. Instead of today’s undocumented Hispanics fleeing street violence and cartels and paying ruthless coyotes to smuggle them to Brownsville, Nogales and Tijuana, the European wayfarers were escaping the violence of two world wars, arriving in transatlantic vessels at New York’s upper harbor and the 27½ acres of the Ellis Island inspection station.

My parents’ parents, from counties Cork in the south of Ireland and Donegal in the north, were among them. They settled in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. One of my grandfathers, Timothy McCarthy, moved east from Brooklyn to Long Island and the north-shore town of Glen Cove. He found work as a janitor in the local high school. His three sons would become lawyers, including John Patrick, my father.

I came to know many of his clients. Our home in nearby Old Brookville, a village three miles from Glen Cove, was where they came, one after another, to be counseled by my father after he had met and befriended them at Ellis Island. I learned ethnicity early. Names ending in “ski” meant you were a Pole: Rutkowski, Sadowski, Falkowski. If an “o,” you were Italian: Spinello, Capobianco, Graziano. The Irish had “O’s” up front: O’Malley, O’Hara, O’Hearn.

My father had a law office at 57 Glen St. in Glen Cove, but he saw large numbers of clients on Sunday mornings, at Mass at the town’s three Catholic churches. The Poles were at St. Hyacinth, the Italians St. Rocco and the Irish St. Patrick’s. The pastors had no objections to my father’s lawyering so long as it wasn’t taking place when the collection plate was being passed. The legal work was the basic fare: deeds, wills, taxes, probates, landlord issues, residency. My father rarely took money from these clients, accepting payment in sacks of potatoes, onions, lettuce and fruit from the immigrants’ gardens and heavy loaves of black bread from their ovens.

For a time, my father was the city attorney for Glen Cove. It enabled him to carry out his belief that immigrants had two ways to make it in the new world: the hard way and through connections. As the town’s lawyer, he had ample contact with the lawyers of the industrialists, financiers, railroad barons and capitalists who were then building palatial estates in Glen Cove and what would become the Gatsbyesque Gold Coast of Long Island. The other villages into which the money poured included Roslyn, Locust Valley, Sands Point and Greenvale. J.P. Morgan, Marjorie Merriweather Post, E.F. Hutton, Clarence Mackay and a Vanderbilt or two were the early high rollers. It was through the lawyers for the moneyed that my father found jobs for his clients on the estates: cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and butlers. The rich needed people to build their playgrounds, which were golf courses. Among them, dating to the 1920s, were the Creek Club overlooking Long Island Sound, Piping Rock, where the Duke of Windsor took his swings, and Sands Point, where Averell Harriman gamboled. All of this on land settled for uncounted thousands of years by the Algonquian Nation, later called the Matinecock and now long dispersed.

The immigrants of those years faced harshness, but unlike those arriving today they weren’t wracked with fears of being sent back to chaotic and violent homelands. The immigrants of a century ago found work, but it wasn’t the low-paid dirty work — if that — that today’s must grub for. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that at least a few John Patrick McCarthys, as legally skilled as they are kindhearted, are among the immigration lawyers of today.

My father died 60 years ago, in 1954, the year Ellis Island closed. At his funeral mass in Glen Cove’s St. Patrick’s, former clients came. For my mourning mother, many brought sacks of potatoes and bags of black bread.

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