Want to start sharing your mind and have your voice heard?
Join our community of awesome contributing writers and start publishing now.
I am a descendant of an immigrant to this country. Everyone who is reading this is a descendant of an immigrant as well. Even those who claim to be native to America are also immigrants if one believes in the bridge across the Bering Straits theory of mass migration. So, the question that I have is, “Why is our President preventing families who seek a better life here in the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
Immigrants come to the United States for a variety of reasons, but they all share one common goal: a chance at a better life. In the 19th century, for instance, the poverty of displaced farm workers driven from the land by the mechanization of farm work, the overcrowding and joblessness in European cities as a result of its population boom, and religious persecution led to a wave of immigration to the United States. Present statistics from the Department of Homeland Security show that many immigrants coming here today are also trying to escape violence and instability in their native lands for a chance at a better life.
During the European immigration wave from the 1890s to 1920s, there was an influx of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, including Greece, Croatia, Slovakia, Poland, and Russia. Many were uneducated and illiterate, and there was resistance to these immigrants that were considered less than desirable. As a result, in 1921, the United States Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act that set a 3% annual quota for new immigrants based on their country’s population in the United States as counted in the 1910 census. This restricted new immigrants outside of Northern Europe, including Eastern and Southern Europe, from coming to America. Three years later, the quota was dropped to 2% and remained in place until 1965.
It was during this time period that one of my ancestors was able to enter this country despite the strict quotas placed on immigration by the U.S. Congress.
I was fortunate to know this ancestor even though it was for a short period of time. My great-grandfather, my father’s maternal grandfather, entered the United States on January 27th, 1922. Story has it that he arose early on that day in order to claim a prime location to see the Statue of Liberty on the deck of the ship that carried him and his family from Odessa, Ukraine. I cannot fathom the fear yet excitement of leaving one’s home at age 17, traveling across an ocean to a new world, and calling a new place home without understanding or speaking the language. As they unloaded the ship, my great-grandfather, along with the masses of other immigrants, was herded into the vast halls of Ellis Island.
I can only imagine the fear that my teenage great-grandfather experienced as he presented his personal documents to the immigration officer.
“What is your name boy?”
“Moishe,” replied my great-grandfather.
“Moishe what?” questioned the officer in a loud voice in an attempt to speak over the jumbled noises that bounced off the walls of the great hall at Ellis Island.
“Tzedevatskaya,” returned my great-grandfather.
“Morris Watsky!” with the pounding of a stamp by the first American who my great-grandfather would encounter. Just like that, Morris Watsky was born! Now, my great-grandfather and his family, which included his mother, Reba Dumer, brothers Irving, Alex, and Jules, and sisters Anne and Mollie, were in America with the assistance of the H.I.A.S., The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. This organization was founded in 1881 originally to assist Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. Today, the H.I A. S. continues its mandate to assist immigrants who seek asylum, including those that President Trump wants to exclude.
In an interview for a Baton Rouge television station on July 4, 1986, my great-grandfather was asked, “What was it like in Russia while your family was living there?”
The Ziz was always very reluctant to speak about his past, especially his days in Russia. However, this time he responded, “It was rough. Conditions were bad because in 1917 the Communists took over the country, and the Jews were persecuted. My father did not want to live in Russia anymore, so he left to go to America to start a new life for himself and his family. The family was to go to America when they could get visas.”
The Ziz was responsible for looking after his mother and younger siblings after his father and brother Harry left Russia to raise enough income to provide passage for the rest of them.
“When I was 15 years old, and along with my remaining family, we left for America. After a long trip on board the ship, we were told that we could see the Statue of Liberty, which we did. Finally, we stopped at Ellis Island where we were treated very well. We had to stay awhile because one of my sisters had a large port wine birthmark on her neck. When we were cleared to leave Ellis Island, we went to New Orleans.”
In America, Ziz continued to care for his family after it was rumored that his father died of a ruptured appendix in New Orleans. Ziz quickly learned English and refused to speak Russian or Yiddish. Although he never received a formal education, he was adamant that his children and grandchildren obtain college degrees—an opportunity he never had.
While he did not have a formal education nor a highly skilled job, it did not stop him from pursuing the American Dream.
Through hard work and determination, he was able to put together a highly successful business with his brother selling candy, paper products, and various sundry items to small stores in the area. The company took the name of the Dixie Candy Company and grew quickly, employing several salesmen, truck and delivery drivers, and warehouse workers. The Ziz was proud of his work in addition to being an American citizen. He often would say, “I do not mind paying income tax because I am so grateful to be living in the United of States of America.”
Unfortunately, I did not have many years with the Ziz as I knew him when I was very young. I did not have the means to communicate back then, but I sure wish I did! I would have asked him if he was scared leaving the Ukraine and not being able to communicate when he first came to America because he did not speak English, something similar to me as I cannot speak due to my nonverbal autism. I always admired how he did not let that deter his desire to succeed as he became a successful businessman; although, by President Trump’s standards, he wouldn’t have passed the merit tests to enter the United States.
As I think about my great-grandfather, I wonder if he would have had the same opportunity in America today. Trump’s policies seem focused on restricting immigrants who are sacrificing everything for a chance at a better life. During a recent trip to New York City, I experienced an incredible feeling with my parents as we toured the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In this day where we argue about immigration control, we have this wonderful lady stretching out her arms and saying, “Bring me your tired, your poor, and your homeless.”
Today, the halls of Ellis Island serve as a reminder to us all that we are a nation of immigrants.
Pictures and documents are there to assist families to research their loved ones who began their new lives at this entry point to the United States. We did this too on a recent visit to Ellis Island, as we scanned the vast numbers of names hoping that we would find that person whom we could call our relative. We searched microfilm files hoping that our long lost ancestor would be there and reach out to us, and say, “I am so glad that you found and remembered me.”
My parents became very emotional as they thought of their ancestors who felt the comfort from this great lady as she welcomed them from the persecution that their families experienced from pogroms in Russia. It was these people, and their chance to pursue the American Dream, who made it possible for all of the members of my family to enjoy and cherish our lives in the United States.
So, I have a statement for President Trump. My great-grandfather and his family were an example of the American Dream, the desire to escape persecution in another country and start a new life here. There are many other examples of families escaping tyranny in our country’s history. This is what our country is about.
Please register or log in to personalize and favorite your content.
Please register or log in to view notifications.
Send this to a friend