My Grandfathers Were Illegal Immigrants
The immigrant experience is central to the American Jewish story, so as Jews we often sympathize with the challenges today's immigrants face in coming to a new country. Although they would never admit it in public, many Jews feel superior to today's immigrants.
We tell ourselves that our relatives came to escape anti-Semitism and for religious freedom, not just for economic opportunity. We assume that Jews were not undocumented or illegal immigrants and that they waited patiently for their visas; we weren't smuggled in and our families "deserve" to be here.
Actually, not all American Jews have such legally pristine roots. In my own family, two of my three immigrant grandparents had questionable status.
My grandfather Jerry Gelman was born in Bialystock in 1906 and came here on his mother's Russian passport when he was six months old. He had no documents showing when or where he was born or when he immigrated; he was essentially an undocumented immigrant. This tough businessman never applied for a US passport or clarified his legal status for fear of being exposed as illegal and deported.
In the 1920?s, no one asked Jerry to prove his citizenship to attend the University of Pittsburgh at in-state tuition rates. Being a graduate of Fifth Avenue High School was proof enough. With his pharmacy degree from Pitt, he earned enough to purchase the drugstore that enabled him to support his wife, son and elderly parents throughout the Depression. In the 1940?s, he left retail to become a corporate executive, overseeing legions of salesmen. He retired as the vice president of a large corporation.
Jerry Gelman's college education was the key to turning his life into the all-American success story. It propelled him out of poverty and into the middle class.
Today, laws in several states prevent many immigrants from receiving the kind of chance for an education that Jerry Gelman had. These laws preclude undocumented students from paying in- state tuition. Proponents argue that no state can afford to pay the freight for every poor Mexican student who sneaks across the border. True. But if students have grown up here, gone through school here and will continue to live here, it serves no one's interests to deny them an educational ticket for entry into the middle class.
My other grandfather, Sol Paper, was so eager to be a US citizen that he applied on the first day he was eligible. His journey to America started when, as a Polish soldier working in the camp bakery, he was arrested for giving bread to starving Jews in the local community. According to family legend, he escaped a firing squad by beating his guards in a game of cards. As a fugitive, he made his way home. There, his family gave him his brother-in-law's American visa. In the confusing days after WWI, Sol purchased a Ukrainian passport to match the name on the visa. With these documents, he sailed to Baltimore, where he changed his name back to his own. His official US documents always bore his brother-in-law's birth date.
Judging by his accomplishments, Sol was a highly desirable citizen. He was a stalwart of the Jewish communities in Baltimore and then Denver. As a member of the Farband, a Jewish immigrant aid society, he helped found Camp Gordonia, the precursor to the Zionist youth camp, Habonim Dror Camp Moshava. In 1952, Sol was received personally by Israeli President Chaim Weizmann in gratitude for his role in raising funds to support the holocaust survivors from his hometown.
Today, Sol's criminal record in his home country and his questionable documents would be cause to deny him citizenship and to deport him. Of course the US would be better off without members of violent immigrant youth gangs. But deporting everyone with questionable documents and with legal problems in his or her country of origin would deprive the US of many Sol Papers as well.
Despite being torn from family and friends, spending many nauseating weeks at sea, struggling with a foreign language and foreign customs, and toiling long hours in sweatshops, my grandparents and other Jews of their generation came to the US because it was better than starving in the shtetls of Eastern Europe under the ever-present threat of pogroms. Many came to support wives and children and parents back home.
Cleaning toilets and picking strawberries are no one's idea of an easy life. Swimming a river and risking death in a desert or in a locked container are only worth it when the alternatives at home are bleak. No parent wants to leave children behind when they sneak into a foreign country but being a responsible parent means earning a living. Undocumented immigrants come out of a desperate feeling of responsibility for those they leave behind.
The United States has benefited greatly from immigrants --- both those with proper documents and those with questionable status, like my grandfathers. Our country's immigration policy and treatment of illegal immigrants must reflect not only our compassion for these people as human beings but also recognize the tangible contributions they and their children are making and will make to our country.
Judith Gelman is the chair of Policy and Advocacy for Ameinu.
Previous Special Dossiers