All American Families Have Stories of Illegal Immigration

7 minute read
Hernández is the author of Welcome the Wretched: In Defense of the “Criminal Alien” and the Gregory Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Ohio State University

By the time I showed up on the scene, my wife’s grandmother was in her 90s. Her hearing was bad and her mobility worse. But her spirit was all there. The first of her Italian migrant family to be born in the United States, she enjoyed telling my wife and me about her parents. Unlike more recent migrants, they had done things the way they should be done, she insisted. Her father left Italy in 1912 only after his brother had a job lined up for him in Philadelphia. Then the rest of the family joined. Over the years, they worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and lived well.

In those moments, I often felt like I was shouting to be heard past the FOX News commentators that wouldn’t stop complaining about the Mexican migrants, some of whom resembled my own relatives. In my quiet frustration, I would tell grandmom that in the early 1900s, a century before I met her, it was illegal to come here with a job in hand. Her father, I pointed out, had lied to get into the U.S.—and her uncle had helped.

Watching endless stories of recent migrants' arrivals who violate immigration law, it’s easy to forget that the migrants who came to the U.S. generations ago often did, too. But reinventing the past doesn’t make migrants then any more fit for life in the U.S. than migrants today.

Read More: The Current Migrant Crisis Is a Collective Trauma

By the time grandmom died, I never convinced her that her family’s migration story was more complicated than she imagined it. That didn’t surprise me. This happens in most families. We remember the victories and celebrations, while forgetting the defeats and tragedies. Eventually the history we imagine becomes the only history anyone knows, creating pasts that are happier, less stained by stories of illegality, than the lives our ancestors lived.

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But the truth about migration, like the truth hidden in the family history that I was born into and the one I married into, is more complicated. In those years when my wife’s relatives were settling into a life in the U.S. that they weren’t legally entitled to, transitioning from maligned southern Europeans to the ranks of white Americans, Louis Loftus Repouille busied himself building a life in New York City. A white man from the Dutch West Indies, Repouille spent his working days operating elevators at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

One afternoon in October 1939, Repouille’s wife and one child went shopping. He sent two other kids to a movie, leaving him alone with 13-year-old Raymond Repouille, the couple’s oldest child, a boy whose poor health prevented him from walking or talking. Quietly and deliberately, Repouille soaked a rag in chloroform and approached the bed where the boy laid. We don’t know whether Raymond understood what was happening or whether the father hesitated. But we do know that Repouille covered the boy’s mouth and nose with the rag and held it there until the boy stopped moving. Repouille had killed his son.

A jury eventually convicted Repouille of manslaughter but asked the judge to go easy on him. Raymond’s death was a “mercy killing,” newspapers declared. Evidently agreeing with the jury, the judge made sure he was home in time for Christmas.

Four years, 11 months, and one week after being convicted of killing Raymond, Repouille applied for U.S. citizenship. He met all the requirements, except for one: he hadn’t waited long enough since the conviction. Federal law required five years of good moral character before applying for citizenship. Had he just waited another three weeks, a federal court concluded, his crime would’ve been forgiven. “The pitiable event, now long passed, will not prevent Repouille from taking his place among us as a citizen,” Judge Learned Hand, a towering figure in 20th century U.S. law, wrote. And so it was: When Repouille later reapplied for citizenship, he succeeded.

There was never any worry that Repouille might be deported because, back then, immigration law could forgive even the vilest conduct.

Today, immigration law forgives little and forgets less. Since the 1980s, Republicans and Democrats have steadily made it easier to fall into immigration problems because of a run-in with the police. And they’ve made it harder for judges to let people out of the immigration prison and deportation pipeline. “The ‘drastic measure’ of deportation or removal is now virtually inevitable for a vast number of noncitizens convicted of crimes,” the Supreme Court wrote in 2010.

These days, immigration agents regularly target migrants for far less. In 2017, 12 years after racking up a drug possession conviction, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents knocked on Kamyar Samimi’s door near Denver, Colo. After four decades of living in the U.S. with the government’s permission, Samimi’s entire life was here, not in his native Iran. His daughter Neda, a Denver college student at the time, remembers the care he gave her as a young child and the laughter and happiness he brought to her life as she grew. “He was so sweet, gentle, understanding, and helpful,” she told me.

To ICE, none of that mattered. The only thing that was important was that conviction a dozen years earlier. Agents arrested him just before Thanksgiving. Neda and her family never again saw Samimi alive. Within days of arrest, his health worsened. Samimi told prison guards he felt sick and showed signs of physical distress, but the prison doctor never saw him, and nurses struggled even to reach the doctor by phone, according to ICE’s records. Fifteen days after being hauled into the immigration prison, Neda’s father was dead.

In a statement released after Samimi’s death, ICE listed his conviction, but didn’t mention his family. That didn’t come as a surprise to Neda. When ICE called with news of her father’s passing, the agent on the other end of the phone didn’t offer an explanation, much less sympathy. ICE merely wanted Neda’s address so someone could mail her father’s belongings. The only reason she knows what happened during the last two weeks of his life is because she sued ICE to get its internal review of his death.

Forgetting the "failures" that line our family stories mean we can imagine migrants like Samimi as different from—and worse than—the migrants who arrived generations ago. For my wife’s grandmother, overlooking her own family’s history of illegality meant she could more easily warn my wife about our families’ different “cultures”—too different to allow for a good match.

When politicians suggest that migrants today pose a greater threat to the nation than migrants in the past, they are living a public version of my personal experience. The memories lost are private, but the consequences change laws. Republicans like Donald Trump vilify migrants with abandon. Democrats use kinder words, but policies they support also assume that migrants today present an extraordinary danger against which extraordinary powers must be deployed—whether blocking migrants at the border or erecting steel and concrete barriers near the Río Grande.

Forgetting our family histories, ordinary people like my wife’s grandmother overlook that imperfect people dot all of our family trees. And by sanitizing history, politicians turn outsized fears of today’s newcomers into laws intended to keep out people who are flawed—much like migrants of earlier generations were. Eventually I won over my wife’s grandmother. Sadly, changing laws is much harder, but it begins by remembering that migrants of today have much more in common with migrants of the past than many of us like to admit.

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