Our Poor Immigrant Ancestors

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 23, 2007
| Del.icio.us

My paternal grandfather Patrick came from Ireland late in the 19th century. He found his way to Chicago, where he worked as a butcher. Somewhere in the ethnic neighborhoods of that great Midwestern city, he met and married an immigrant shop girl from Alsace-Lorraine.

Her first name was Adele; she was French, and Adele and Patrick spoke accented English throughout their lives. Both, of course, were devout Catholics, so the birth of a child every year or so continued until the slight, lovely Adele could bear no more.

Dreary Irish poverty born of famine and British colonialism drove Patrick Boylan to the United States. It was the same for Adele. Her family experienced the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 in which Alsace-Lorraine passed from French to German control. The family knew damaged pride, but - worse - severe economic dislocation. So poverty accompanied them to the New World as well.


Poverty, of course, can be found in the antecedents of most of the 66 million men, women and children who have immigrated to the United States since 1820: the 4.8 million Irish who made the trip - or the 5.4 million Italians or the 4.3 million Austro-Hungarians or the 8.8 million Asians and Middle Easterners - and so many, many others.

Poverty pushed 46,000 Chinese, 180,000 Japanese and 120,000 Filipinos up the gangplanks of waiting freighters and across the Pacific to the Kingdom, then Territory, of Hawaii to toil in Islands’ sugar fields and build a better life.

And poverty in Central America has driven 12 million Hispanic immigrants to break the law and risk their lives to do menial, minimum wage labor in our kitchens, hotels, sweatshops and packing plants.

Mexico boasts the strongest economy in Latin America, but its per capita gross national product is $8,066, compared to $45,652 in the United States. The average income in the United States is $37,600 a year; in Mexico its $9,200. And for many it’s far less; income distribution in Mexico grows worse each year: The top 20 percent of the population possesses 55 percent of the Mexico’s wealth. Add to that a labor sector in which part-time employment is often the norm, and you have millions and millions of desperate people.

Meanwhile, the United States, awash in wealth, is a sprint, a cut fence, and a spasm of heart-stopping fear away. Who wouldn’t take the risk? What moral man or woman with a wife, children, aging parents, or anyone else to feed and clothe, wouldn’t do the same?

Particularly when awaiting these illegal immigrants are employers, desperate for hardworking immigrants who will do the menial work shunned by so many 21st century Americans.

Last week, members of the United States Senate passed a bill that would change the nation’s immigration policy for the first time in 20 years. Democrats, and President Bush, wanted a legalization program that would allow the current illegals - under certain conditions - to remain in the United States if they met certain requirements.


Many legislative Republicans wanted a “merit-based system of immigration” that would allow only the well-educated - those who would make the United States more competitive in the global economy - eligible to immigrate.

The Republicans got what they wanted; so too did the Democrats. The problems lie in the margins of the bill: in a temporary-worker program that would allow 400,000-600,000 foreign workers in the country each year to do the nation’s dirty work; and in a provision that would make it difficult for immigrants to bring relatives to the United States from abroad; in an attempt to secure the border with Mexico by training 18,000 new members of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The last remains the most bothersome. The poverty of other nations made the United States what it is today. To be sure, some came to be free to practice their religion or to enjoy a government that did not oppress. But far, far more came to own land, to find a job, to escape poverty.

That will continue to be the case. And it’s difficult to believe that fences can be built long enough or high enough or manned by enough armed guards to keep out those longing to feed their families. People like Patrick and Adele - or your grandparents too.

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