On the dining room table before me is a rumpled piece of paper, barely bigger than a sticky note.
It is the reason that I exist.
The “Alien Head-Tax Receipt” recorded the fare paid by my grandmother at what was then called the Mexican Border District.
To me it’s precious, like the companion she had with her that day — my then-infant father — as she crossed from Mexico northward into the United States.
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Purple stamped ink gives the details: “Feb. 7, 1918. Admitted. Destination, El Paso.” She paid an $8 fee to the United States Immigration Service.
I can’t stop looking at it, along with the other precious papers from my father’s life: his Mexico City birth and baptism records, military papers from his U.S. Navy service during World War II and the exclamation mark to his story, the naturalization certificate marking when he became a U.S. citizen.
Like a lot of people who are aware of their family history — the documented kind, not family lore — I’m deeply troubled by the day-to-day assaults on the character of current Latino immigrants.
First-, second- and third-generation offspring can imagine drastically different scenarios that might have played out if an immigrant ancestor had been less lucky. What if the draconian policies of the Trump administration had been in place then?
What if my father had been taken from his mother’s arms that day? What if he had been locked in some kind of shelter, hundreds of miles from her? Would he have been emotionally scarred, stunted in his development like some among the 2,000 children separated from their parents today?
How would such trauma have affected the rest of my father’s life? Would he have met my mother? Would he have developed his career as one of the best chefs in Kansas City, skilled in French cuisine? Would his life have unfolded so richly? Would mine?
The visa that accompanied my grandmother’s head-tax receipt is interesting because of what it doesn’t show: my grandmother’s face. It’s been scratched and torn off. But you can see my father wearing a little bonnet and her hand holding his. He’s not smiling.
Years later, long after her death, I was told by her elderly sister why my grandmother left Mexico City as a 22-year-old. Her husband, my grandfather, was abusive. Did her photo that day reflect the aftermath of the violence on her face?
The accompanying visa paperwork was stamped Permanent. Neither she nor my father ever returned to Mexico.
A woman in her situation would face a different welcome today. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has deemed that domestic violence is not a reasonable basis for asylum.
Not that she could seek it then. The myriad of visas, of regulations we have now didn’t exist.
Rather, the Immigration Act of 1917 had just passed. It was a sweeping piece of legislation that enacted literacy tests. But Mexicans weren’t the target. Nope, the eugenics movement and a burgeoning nativist fury wanted to keep Asians out. I know. It’s laughable now, given the record of academic and entrepreneurial achievement among Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong and Japanese immigrants to this country.
Both our immigration policy and law have long been buffeted this way and that by the whims of the U.S. populace, of opportunistic politicians and of employers looking for a ready supply of cheap labor. They have not always aligned with principles of fairness or economic rationality.
Take the recent news that some immigrant members of the U.S. military have been drummed out of service, discharged for nebulous reasons that appear to be more about being foreign born than a provable threat.
Our military has long been infused with foreign-born soldiers. It’s part of our strength, particularly in recent years with the need for language skills and knowledge of different cultures.
My father received his citizenship partly with the help and paperwork of the U.S. Navy following his service on Dec. 27, 1946. The idea that anyone would ever question his loyalty to this country is offensive.
Just as it is for so many other immigrants who came before and after him, and many of those who are arriving each day at U.S. ports. They deserve a fair chance to migrate legally.
Loss, heartache and trauma are embedded within the immigrant experience. But be clear about this, too.
Immigrants, by definition, are a cut above. Only the extraordinary dare to make the journey. And therein resides the potential for their greatest gifts to this land as new Americans.