When my sister and I were in elementary school, my parents took our family, including my grandmother, on a vacation to visit national parks in the American West. When we arrived at Glacier National Park in Montana, we stayed in a cabin and did the things you usually do in a national park such as hiking, fishing, etc. Then my parents decided to take us across the international border into Alberta, Canada, to visit the Canadian national park there, Waterton Lakes National Park.
Crossing the border was uneventful except for one thing. My grandmother did not go with us. She stayed on the U.S. side of the border. I asked why but received no real answer.
Later when I was older, I looked into this. I discovered that my grandmother was an “illegal alien.” She was born in a small town in the Italian Alps on the road between Torino (aka Turin) and the French border. At that time, early 20th century, jobs were hard to come by so it was common for groups of Italian men from small towns and villages to go abroad for seasonal work. They became migrant workers in order to support their families. My great-grandfather, Antonio, had gone with fellow villagers to Argentina to harvest wheat where they were known as golondrinas, which means “swallows”, because they came and went with the harvest.
The United States was the final place my great-grandfather came to work abroad, and this is where he stayed. He found a reliable job in a coal mine in eastern Oklahoma. Antonio sent for his wife, Francesca (my great-grandmother) and his three daughters. Antonio and Francesca’s only son had died in infancy. I was told that Francesca did not want to leave her home and her extended family, but she had no choice. She lived to the age of 101, but she never returned to her Italian home, not even for a visit. My grandmother entered the U.S. at Ellis Island with her mother, Francesca, and her two sisters. My grandmother was five years old.
My grandmother was now known as Alberta thanks to an Ellis Island immigration office who wanted her to have “an American name.” When she was in her twenties, her parents applied and became U.S. citizens. My grandmother never applied. As a result, she was undocumented her entire life, which ended one month before her 90th birthday. She went to American schools, earned her R.N. degree, worked as a registered nurse, and she became the head of the nursing department in the hospital where she worked for several years before retirement. I don’t know if she ever registered with immigration authorities. Maybe she just pretended to be a U.S. citizen and no one ever questioned her. But she knew better than to go across the Canadian border because she could not provide documents that would allow her to return to her life in the U.S.
My grandmother qualifies as a Dreamer: a person who was brought across the border as an infant or child, who grew up and was educated in the U.S., who works here and pays taxes. The difference between her and the Dreamers of today is that Dreamers currently have no path to become legal U.S. citizens. We need immigration reform.
The U.S.-Mexico Border Today
This brings me to current events on the U.S. border. If you watch the news, there are thousands of refugees and asylum seekers showing up at the U.S. border with Mexico. The majority are coming from Central American countries, Venezuela, and Colombia. But asylum seekers are coming from many other countries now, among them Ukrainians to escape the war at home, and Russians to escape conscription into Putin’s war. These folks qualify for asylum, but they’ve been denied entry because of a Trump-era rule, Title 42, that was originally meant to keep covid-infected people out of the U.S. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide on continuing or overturning Title 42 with a decision coming in June.
Meanwhile, families are suffering in the cold, sleeping on the street on both sides of the border, scrambling to feed their kids and to find medical care. Their deepest hope is to be allowed to come across the border and to seek safely in an American refugee center, with the hope of beginning the legal process of re-building their lives in America. We need immigration reform.
What Can We Do?
~~Contact your Congressional representatives and ask/demand/plead for immigration reform. My two Arizona Senators, Kelly and Sinema, are both working on a plan for immigration reform.
~~Help in any way you can. Donate money, supplies or time to a refugee-relief organization. I’m listing below two in my region. Check in your area to see what’s available if you don’t live in southern Arizona.
My grandmother would approve.
1. Casa Alitas, a project of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, was founded in 2014, “Casa Alitas provides housing, food, clothing, toiletries, advocacy, and travel assistance.” Border Patrol brings asylum seekers directly to Casa Alitas. https://www.casaalitas.org/info
2. Voices from the Border, is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization based in Patagonia, Arizona.
https://www.facebook.com/VOICESfromtheBORDER/ Voices provides “asylum seekers in Nogales, Sonora, MX with free medical care & direct humanitarian aid.” In other words, they are going across the border to help out those refugees who are stuck there until Title 42 is withdrawn. Voices has a terrific email newsletter, too, with lots of photos and stories. firstname.lastname@example.org