Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Not So Unfamiliar Story

Current Presidential Immigration 
Actions Hit Home

Waking this morning to news of detentions at airports of visitors, refuges, immigrants and green card holder from middle eastern countries listed in President Trump's recent executive action immediately raised my anxiety/compassion level. These reports sadly melded with my own family story of an immigrant detention at port of entry.

In 1921 my Sicilian grandfather, long a citizen of the United States and veteran of service in the US Army durning World War I, returned to the US from a visit to his homeland. He brought with him a new wife and her 10 year old sister. Upon arrival at Ellis Island the authorities were required to admit my grandfather as a citizen and his wife by virtue of that citizenship. But his young sister-in-law did not fit into that formula. She was neither his wife, daughter or blood relative. Although he asserted his willingness to fully support this child he could not prove his ability to do so. He had been out of the country for almost a year and therefore could not provide evidence of gainful employment. He must have had savings because within four years he would by a three family house in Brooklyn. But it may also have been impossible at that moment to provide proof of any assets. The authorities determined that the 10 year old girl who could not speak anything but Sicilian had to be detained in Ellis Island facilities until my grandfather could return with proof that he could support her and prevent her becoming a burden to society and government coffers.

An Italian woman with young children apparently took little Carmelina under her wing for guidance and protection. It was November and during my aunt's two week detention Thanksgiving was celebrated and a special meal provided. Eventually my grandfather returned with proof of support in the form of bank passbooks or a pay stub and the small family was reunited. Our family heard this story recounted by my Aunt Millie every Thanksgiving. As a child myself I remember being horrified at the tale and wondering how this could possibly have been done to a little girl. 

This mornings' news went directly to the memory of this story. Today as a mother and grandmother I struggle to imagine how my grandmother may have cried and screamed at being separated from her little sister in a strange and forbidding place after a long ocean voyage. My heart still cries for the little girl who never knew her own mother and looked to her sister for everything in her life feeling such panic and wailing at their separation. It is within this emotional space that I considered the stories of those detained at airports this weekend; many already extensively vetted, some holding 'green cards' as vetted resident aliens in the US who work here, own homes, have families and pay taxes.

On Saturday, January 28, when Brooklyn Federal District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly upheld an action by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging detentions by executive order she wrote that such detentions could cause "irreparable harm". I can attest to the irreparable harm done to my dear aunt by her detention so many years ago. Each time I heard her anguished story I thought, "Thank God they don't do that anymore." How wrong I was.