I am the son of an illegal immigrant. My father was born in Crete. He and his father snuck across the border from Canada to the United States in the 1930s. My father eventually forged papers to create a paper trail that permitted him to live in the United States for the vast majority of his 84 years. So successful was he as a forger that when he died, no one was really sure how old he was, even his wife.
But for all that he was an American. He spoke flawless English. He sired a son and a daughter, although, truth be told, I’ve never met my sister; I take my father at his word on this. He lived for many years as an outlaw, robbing payroll trucks at gunpoint and living off the books on the proceeds. He shot a man once. And when he was about the age I am now, he settled down to a long and productive career helping troubled teens find their way in the world.
And somehow through all the chapters and heartache of his life the republic survived. Indeed, I argue it got stronger.
I think of my father when I read about the debate on immigration reform, and when I watch the lingering conflict in Arizona about the state’s new immigration law. We kid ourselves if we think we can build a wall high enough to keep struggling people seeking minimum standards of living from entering this country.We diminish the quality of life of all Americans by creating yet another set of laws and law enforcement officers empowered to snatch and grab folks who simply want to live as well as we do.
My father told me he was born and spent his early years in Sfakia, a port city looking toward North Africa. He and his father fled to North America because of poverty. They settled on Detroit because it offered opportunities they did not have in Crete. My grandfather worked and sent money home to his wife and struggling family. My father broke free of Crete and turned his face to the new world.
Neither of these men read civics books before they traveled here. Neither thought that government was of much use or relevance to their pragmatic concerns. Both viewed the world warily, as a place of opportunities and obstacles. For my father, the law was an obstacle to the opportunities he sensed. So he ignored the law.
My hunch is that most of those crossing our border from the South are just like my father. They pledge allegiance to nothing more than survival. They come here any way they can without any sense of loyalty to the laws and institutions governing this country. For many, government and law lack legitimacy because the law seeks to drive a wedge between an immigrant and something like an inchoate sense of the right to a decent life. A sense of legitimacy is an acquired taste; loyalty is a luxury only those two steps removed from starvation can afford.
My father died several years ago. I never told him I understood his struggle. I never told him I was proud of what he had overcome and become. When I look at the illegal immigrants swimming against the current of our laws now, I see my father’s face. I see his face and I know that no power alive can keep people from fighting to survive. We kid ourselves thinking we can close our borders. We never will.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.