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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

And Some, I Assume, Are Good People . . .

America is, almost entirely, a nation of immigrants. And every immigrant family has a story. The rise of Donald Trump and his ugly nativism made me think a lot about my family’s story. My Great Grandparents, Marie and Julius, were Flemish and French-speaking Belgians. Like many others, they fled the ashen remnants of the First World War for the U.S., in 1920. Many like to romanticize Ellis Island, and early twentieth century U.S. as a welcoming place. But the America Marie and Julius faced was a hostile place for new arrivals — particularly Catholics (like them) and Jews. As Martha Minnow recently noted “in the first part of the twentieth century, nativist anxieties about waves of immigrants and Bolshevism fueled movements to ‘Americanize’ the children of newcomers.” Nativist groups — particularly “the KKK, Federated Patriotic Societies, and Masons” — “sounded white supremacist, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic tones while pushing assimilation of immigrants into ‘American’ culture — meaning white Protestantism.” Marie and Julius faced this racism. If a religious litmus test were in place then, they surely would have been turned away.

Mr. Trump also likes to distinguish families like mine from many of today’s refugees by casting immigrants into two lots: “legal” and “illegal.” But you see, by this metric too, my family fails. As they disembarked on Ellis Island, arrivals were examined by doctors with the goal of excluding those deemed medically unfit for entry. During this process, Marie, then eight-months pregnant, became separated from her husband. Julius, a decorated veteran of the Belgian Army had punctured his stomach fighting in WWI. The physician who initially examined him identified this malady. He gave Julius a card that would instruct another physician to more closely examine this wound. As he stood in line, worrying about his wife, Julius struck up a conversation with another French-speaking immigrant. The other man held a card that said “Heart.” Inspiration struck. On Julius’s suggestion, the two traded cards. A few hours later, a second physician whisked my Great Grandfather into the country, quickly concluding that he had a strong heart. Later, he found my Great Grandmother among the waiting throng on the New Jersey waterfront. They made their way to Ohio where they would eventually acquire a farm, which they lost during the Depression, but later reacquired. They raised five children.

According to Mr. Trump’s understanding of citizenship, Julius might be viewed as “illegal” and my own Grandfather, the bravest man I ever knew, an “anchor baby.”

I didn’t know Julius. He died young. But my Great Grandmother lived a long life. She told me this story. Our family’s story.

I chose to share it in the hope that it might move some of Mr. Trump’s supporters to see the faces of their own loved ones in the Syrian and Central American refugees they wish to turn away. I also hope — remembering my Great Grandmother’s admonition that no one is beyond redemption — that it might still be possible to win over Mr. Trump’s own heart and mind. Though judging by his antics, I doubt he has much use for either.

Posted by Chad DeVeaux on December 9, 2015 at 06:02 PM | Permalink

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