My Ancestors Also Came From Poor and Desperate Places

When our head of state makes such vile and bigoted statements in the course of his official business, every American is diminished. There can be no equivocating: an immigration policy based on race is an affront to American values.

January 14, 2018
Ellis Island

Count me among the millions of Americans who reacted with disgust upon learning that the president of the United States, meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office, lashed out when the discussion turned to protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. According to reliable witnesses, the president said: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He suggested the United States should instead bring in more people from “countries such as Norway.” Deriding “chain migration,” the ability of new immigrants to reunite their families here, he pressed for a “merit-based” immigration system.

When our head of state makes such vile and bigoted statements in the course of his official business, every American is diminished. There can be no equivocating: an immigration policy based on race is an affront to American values.

Of course, Donald Trump is hardly the first politician to denigrate immigrants. Indeed, he taps into a deeply rooted nativism that goes back to our country’s earliest days. As early as 1798, reacting to an influx of political refugees after the French Revolution, Congress restricted the rights of immigrants through the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Know-Nothing movement of the nineteenth century was a powerful force seeking to halt the immigration of Catholics from Germany and Ireland who threatened to change the face of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant country.

Trump’s fantasy of deserving Norwegian immigrants aside, the wonderful and complicated story of American immigration has been the story of undesirable people coming from unhappy places to the consternation of many. I know this because it’s the story of my own family.

In addition to my day job at the Brennan Center for Justice, I spend some of my free time on a personal passion: family history research. Through the dogged pursuit of old records – church ledgers, passenger ship manifests, censuses and naturalization petitions – I have pieced together fairly detailed accounts of the lives my ancestors lived in the border regions of failing empires. They are the stories of collapsed economies and military occupations and family tragedies. The lives my forebears left behind were not very nice at all.

Take my grandfather, Alex Kowal. The son of an abusive alcoholic, Alex was born in the village of Kharucha Vel’ka in modern day Ukraine, in what was then a remote province of the Russian Empire. Living a hardscrabble rural life, Alex never got an education. His older brother was taken away one day by Russian soldiers, probably for participating in an illegal labor strike. At the age of 19, Alex found a way out when representatives of the Canada Pacific Railway came looking for laborers. Alex found himself boarding a boat for Halifax with over a hundred other Ukrainian men, all members of a Ukrainian Catholic sect suppressed by the ruling Russians. Alex spent a long, cold winter chopping down trees in Quebec before coming to the U.S. with a small group of friends. He had $11 to his name. Building a new life in America through a lifelong series of odd jobs, Alex never saw his family again. He escaped many horrors that befell the place of his birth, including a genocidal famine that killed millions.

His wife, my grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska, came from the small town of Zalozce in the remote northeast corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The daughter of a military veteran and granddaughter of a serf, Katarzyna was born into a somewhat better life. She received a grade school education. But she saw the economy of her town, based on the small-scale production of boots for the Austrian military, wither and die as big industry destroyed their livelihoods. So Katarzyna became part of what our president derides as a “chain migration” to new lives in New York. It started with older cousins who found work and sent money back to pay for the passage of others. Katarzyna was one of at least 20 cousins, the sons and daughters of three brothers, who emigrated to America between 1905 and 1921. She arrived at Ellis Island at the age of 22 with $13 in her pocket. As a woman arriving alone, she was denied admission until her male cousin came to vouch for her. She found employment as a live-in maid until she married four years later. By then, the outbreak of World War I would ravage the home she left behind. Advancing Russian and Austrian armies swept back and forth, reducing Zalozce to ruins.

My great-grandfather Andrej Sabol was born in the small town of Trebejov in what is now eastern Slovakia, an area that to this day is the butt of jokes for people in that part of the world (think Arkansas). The region was under the control of Hungarians who suppressed Slovak language and culture. Andrej’s family belonged to a small community of Evangelical Lutherans, a disfavored religious minority which enjoyed some latitude to practice their faith because they were only a bunch of bumpkins anyway. From an 1870 census return, I know that Andrej grew up in a two-room house with 14 inhabitants. They scratched out a living as tenant farmers. Cholera swept the town when Andrej was just a baby. Three members of his household died. When Andrej was 19, he followed friends and neighbors who were beginning to migrate to the small town of Raritan, New Jersey. Over time, Andrej’s brothers and cousins followed, as did hundreds of friends and neighbors. After his father froze to death one particularly brutal winter, his mother came over too. Together, these Slovak Lutherans recreated their village in Raritan, centered around their church. There they supported each other under difficult circumstances, working hard to rise out of poverty.

These stories are hardly unique. How many Americans would be here today without “chain migration” from impoverished and desperate places? And how many of our forebears, from wherever they hailed, would have qualified for immigration under a “merit-based” system?

Looking back a century or more, it is easy to romanticize the tales of our immigrant ancestors. But many Americans disdained them and the places they came from.  After the huge immigration wave of the early 20th century – which filled the tenements of East Coast cities with Jews, Italians and Slavs – Congress imposed national origin quotas to limit “undesirable” immigration, favoring northern European countries over all others for decades.

But despite many hardships, including discrimination based on their national origin, I know the stories of my immigrant ancestors led to many happy endings: generations of descendants who have lived productive lives in a free country, contributing as fire fighters and factory workers and teachers and lawyers. Why should we doubt that today’s newest Americans, following a similar path, will enrich this country for generations to come?

(Photo: AP)