My parents immigrated to the United States in 1952. My brother and I were born here.
As I child, I was painfully aware how different my parents were from the American parents of my friends, and by extension, self-conscious about how “other” I was.
Add to that my parents’ ethnicity—German. In post-WWII-America, Germans were hated. I didn’t fully understand the reason for the depth of that abhorrence until I was in college.
I grew up with the understanding that Germany was the land of geniuses. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Einstein, and von Braun were all Germans. My parents wistfully held on to their memories of what Germany once was, but they could no longer live in what it had become.
As a child I always felt like I was straddling a fence—one foot loyal to the USA, one foot longing for Germany.
To my parents’ credit, they mostly spoke in English in their children’s presence. That was intentional. They never wanted to be thought of as stupid immigrants. They wanted to assimilate to the highest degree. When I started kindergarten, I spoke English with a German accent, with foreign syntax, and much more distinctly than my peers. Whenever I opened my mouth, I revealed myself to be partly alien.
My parents taught us a little bit of German—some common phrases, a prayer—but reserved their own conversations in German for when German friends came visiting, or if they were discussing something they didn’t want us to know about, like an acquaintance’s shameful behavior, or what Santa might bring. As a result, my brother and I understand a lot of German, but put words together slowly. Yet, we had an edge over the other students when we studied German in high school.
The first day of school, my parents sent me with a rucksack on my back, while my parochial school classmates all carried book bags. I came home in tears because I was ashamed of being so different. My bewildered father returned the rucksack to the store in exchange for an American book bag.
At my school, every mother was required to supervise recess a certain number of days each year. Those days were mixed blessings for me—joyful because it was such a novel pleasure to have her there, but also stressful, because the other kids might laugh at her when she said something.
Being first generation American sometimes put me in a difficult position—I sometimes felt I had to defend the United States against my parents. Mom and Dad took exception to the way Germans were portrayed in war movies and documentaries. I confess I yelled at them that they should go back to Germany if they didn’t like America.
Yet, the United States truly was a land of opportunity for my family. Due to my father’s skill and hard work as a baker, he eventually landed a job with an employer who recognized his promise. Ultimately, he was invited to become a partner in the baking company, and served as their production manager for many years.
My parents strongly supported education. They made sure their children and grandchildren did well in school and were able to go on to college, an advantage they never had themselves.
Immigrants occupy a special place in my heart. Our country still has room for people who want to better their lives and are willing to work hard. However, there is a process to follow. (My parents applied to legally immigrate. Their backgrounds were investigated before permission was granted. My aunt and her American GI husband sponsored them.)
The process is burdensome and needs serious overhauling. Does that mean it is acceptable for people to bypass it to get into the United States?
Some people who come to the US are motivated by evil intent. Twenty years ago I attended a writers’ conference workshop where a law enforcement officer discussed police procedures. I vividly remember him saying that in my home state of Arizona, an illegal alien is involved every time a fatal “drug deal gone wrong” occurs.
Recently, terrorist training camps were discovered in Texas, launched and staffed by illegal immigrants. Clearly, our porous borders threaten the security of our country. The American way of life is in mortal danger.
When people enter our country as undocumented aliens, they are demonstrating a serious failure to abide by our laws. They are using the same avenue as criminals. I don’t care how nice a person is; the law is not there for one’s convenience—it is established for the protection of our country and should not be circumvented.
It could be argued that, other than tribal native Americans, every person in the United States is a descendant of immigrants. Immigration builds our country. But we need an application process to screen out potential problems. It is critical that our president, Congress, and the American public support a process that screens those who want to live in our country. Entering the United States is a privilege—not a right.
Andrea, this is such a good article. I couldn’t agree more.
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Andrea, as the daughter of your aunt who sponsored your parents and your cousin I so enjoyed reading your story. My story is of course different since my dad was born in the US. I also wasn’t aware of how great of a writer you are. Congratulations, very impressed and I’m sure Gregg and the kids are so proud (I’m sure they knew that anyway) I know our mom’s and your dad had a difficult time during the war and even when they immigrated here.
Thanks for the kind words, cousin Monica. Do you remember my parents living with your family in your parents’ old house? Then they rented the little house on Carpenter Street, right around the corner. Thank you for your encouragement.
I too am an immigrant. I was lucky that my parents were able to bring their family to the United States, a great country. Not everyone is so lucky. I was born in Cuba, am of Spanish heritage, am now an American citizen and live in Miami, Florida. I always laugh when I see the bumper stickers that say “When the last American leaves Miami will he bring the flag.” The “American” owner of this sticker seems to think that he is more entitled to live here than an immigrant. This person just lacks education. Like you said, this is a country of immigrants. It is very possible that my ancestors where in Florida before this person’s family was. But really it’s not WHEN you or your family get to a place that matters, it’s WHAT YOU DO FOR YOUR COMMUNITY that really matters. And the sins of your ancestors are not your sins. Peace.