Migration in America

Peter Biddle recounts the stories of his migrant ancestors and their journey to America, making the point that you can't escape your fate by staying put.

My own grandparents fraudulently entered Canada as refugees after WWII. My father's mother and father were Red Army deserters who burned their papers in order to qualify as displaced people; they narrowly escaped a pogrom in Poland on their way to Hamburg and the DP boat to Canada. My father's stepfather -- one of two survivors of his entire Polish-Jewish family -- entered Canada on black-market papers, and had two birthdays for the rest of his life (his actual birthday, and the birthday on his papers).

My mother's family entered Canada and the US legally, because they came a generation earlier, when there were essentially no formalities to entering those countries. It's unlikely that they could have passed under the current regime.

I am a migrant to the UK. I have held a variety of US work-visas. Without my unearned privilege -- thanks, in large part, to the familial fortunes that changed due to my undocumented immigrant ancestors' migration -- I couldn't have afforded the titanic sums that the law firms who secured my visas and helped with my UK naturalisation charged. Even with their help, it was a process that was four-fifths Kafka, one-fifth Orwell. I have only the faintest inkling of how difficult it must be for people who don't have the advantages I had, and what it must be like to be fleeing the terror and privation my grandparents raced away from and to be confronted with both the stony-faced, impossible bureaucracy, and the NOT OUR CHILDREN/NOT OUR PROBLEM sign-bearers.

So they left. They got on a ship with what little they had and departed for a new beginning. They were refugees, fleeing oppression and religious persecution, casting their lot into an unknown that simply had to better than what they had known so far.

Together they went to America. A few generations after arriving, a grandson grew up to not be a shoemaker, nor a rural peasant: he became the president of a national bank. A few generations after that another family son created this blog.

Who do we think we are trying to keep out of this wonderful country?


(Image: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, Luigi Crespo, CC-BY)

Notable Replies

  1. It is a strange fact of humanity that often those who have benefitted from the great opportunities they or their ancestors enjoyed will manage to convince themselves that they suceeded of their own accord, or that the fortune that found them was some how innately deserved.

    Then, operating from a seat of egotistical miopia, they condemn the same opportunities and fortunes being granted to others, on the grounds that anyone else is somehow not merely undeserving of them, but actively deserving of being deprived of them.

    A land chiefly peopled by immigrants that today despises immigrants. We consider self-hatred to be destructive and unhealthy in individuals, but we seem to tolerate it within nations and cultures for some reason.

  2. I can understand and accept that for practical purposes you might want to control the flow so as to not overwhelm services or concentrate poverty. What I completely fail to understand is the hatred shown towards immigrants by some folks. If someone making nothing saves all of their pennies, crosses a few thousand miles over hostile terrain, jumps a militarized border, and enters a place where they don't speak your language and are actively out to get you just so that you can work the shittiest of the shit jobs, that person qualifies in my book as a grade A badass. I'll take one of those over same lazy fucking entitled American kid born with a silver spoon stuck up their ass coasting his way through life any day of the week. To turn around and begrudge someone for fighting tooth and nail to get here and make their own dream is disgusting and pathetic.

    I almost wonder if America is a lot like a horse archer horde. For thousands of years, you have had places where nomade horse archers would be on the edge of great civilization. Every now and then they would get their shit together and conquer. Genghis Khan is the most obvious example, but that sort of thing has happened many times throughout history. What is interesting though is that it follows a very normal cycle. The horde comes in and crushes the civilized folks whose are militarily helpless in the face of an organized band of skilled horse archers. They new rulers settle down to rule and enjoy the luxuries of civilization you don't get when you live in a tent. A few generations later, the new rulers are gone. They get weak because they are not wandering and fighting in open steppes and instead chilling in palaces and cities, lose their hard edge, and get their asses kicked by another group of horse archers or pissy natives.

    I think maybe America is similar. It gets these immigration waves where hardy bad asses fight tooth and claw to get here. Those bad asses get here, do great because they are bad ass, and drive the nation forward. A generation or two later when the momentum has worn off and they are just another bunch of lazy ass Americans, another wave of immigrants come to repeat the cycle. Immigration is the lifeblood of the US. Anyone trying to cut that off are short sighted fools root for Americas downfall without even knowing it.

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