Saturday, January 19, 2013

Becoming an American - A once-open path - January 19, 2013

     I was recently looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family, where I found some important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol.   My bubby Anna/Nechame came to Kansas City to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen (a German ship built in 1897) on May 17, 1904. My grandfather arrived within the next two years (he had family in Kansas City as well) after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa (he left Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army).   They were married on March 17, 1907, in Kansas City, Kansas.  What allowed both of my dad’s parents to enter the United States was the open immigration policy of the time.   As I understand the history, as long as there was someone in the United States to offer support, a new arrival was allowed to pass through the gates at their point of entry.   Mendel became an American citizen on April 28, 1924, and Anna was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding.  She was among the residents of the United States required to register in compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940. That act established a program to fingerprint and create a record of every non-citizen within the United States.   This legislation also explicitly declared, as one of its purposes,  to prohibit “certain subversive activities.”  It became known as the “Smith Act” because Virginia Representative Howard W. Smith authored the Act’s anti-Sedition section.   So, my grandmother likely had to tell a local registration officer, sometime late in1940,  not only that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk, but also that she had not “been affiliated with or active in organizations, devoted in whole or in part to influencing or further the political activities, public relations, or public policy of a foreign government.”   I admire the fact that my grandmother became a naturalized citizen following that experience!  After many years of operating a dry goods store (which closed on January 7, 1939), I am sure that she had nothing to hide!
    These documents reminded me that my grandparents were, at one time, strangers in this country, and that officially becoming an American was part of a long process of acculturation.   They became citizens when quotas had been established that all-too-effectively prevented the entry of many people who, if they had been given safe harbor here, would likely have added to quality and character of our nation.   Many controls on immigration still exist today that prevent the possibility of citizenship for some who might want to add the best of what they have to offer to the collective American personality.  Quotas  likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner, which seems to persist even today, even when the diversity of our country should provide Americans from different national or cultural backgrounds with ample opportunities to get to know one another better. 
    Because of the experiences of my grandparents, I cannot help but be moved by the stories of the many people who are not yet citizens of our country who are still deprived of a path to citizenship.   We are enriched by the diversity of our national population and by the skills and wisdom and that that people from many different places bring to our society.  Their path to citizenship should be as smooth now as it was for Mendel and Anna Karol.   
     We read in the Torah: "Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."  We recite this declaration at Passover every year: "In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt."    I am glad that my grandparents had the courage to make a change in their lives and come to the United States.   What I hope is that the land that they envisioned – a land of freedom that is welcoming to all who want to enjoy the benefits of citizenship – is still within our reach.    I only hope that our national leaders, as they consider Immigration Reform, will see fit to consider their own stories of immigration, so that those tales will move them to make the United States a land of opportunity for all who want help our nation thrive in the decades to come.

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