Undocumented immigrants are often painted as murderous criminals, violating immigration controls because of their fundamental lawlessness. They are seen as a single wave, a Latino tide crashing over the southern border. They are seen as a threat, one that requires a border wall and the National Guard. But we can’t talk about the complex nature of immigration when we’re too busy reifying the immigrants of the past as law-abiding, hard-working, real Americans and demonizing immigrants today.
So this is a story of my immigrant past. It’s about my great-grandmother, Mollie Plotkin. Grandma Mollie embodied many of the traits we so admire in our immigrant forbears. She was hard working—so hard working that once, when she broke her arm, she kept going back to work for a week before she had it looked at. She was frugal. She made sure her children got a good education.
There’s another narrative, closer to the harsh realities of immigration. Grandma Mollie and her father stood on a massive line at Ellis Island, waiting to fill out their paperwork with one of the clerks. The clerk glanced at Grandma Mollie and asked her father how old this little girl was. He, overburdened with anxiety, said “six” when he meant “four.” A simple mistake, it seems. But to my great-great-grandfather, not yet fully escaped from Tsarist Russia, there were no simple mistakes when it came to bureaucrats. Rather than correct himself, he waited until his paperwork was completed. He stepped away from the desk. And he bent down and told Grandma Mollie that she was six, now, not four. She had to remember that.
We didn’t hear this story until after I was born, actually. Grandma Mollie obeyed her father’s instructions perfectly, and not until she was in a nursing home did she reveal this crucial detail of her life. The numbers in the story above are approximations, nothing more. We can’t be sure.
And there’s one more story about Grandma Mollie that I need to tell here. Grandma Mollie was an illegal immigrant. Not like one that we imagine today, smuggled across the southern border. But when Grandma Mollie was held in detention on Ellis Island, the authorities started to talk about sending her back. Her family arrived—with a bribe. Money changed hands, papers were adjusted, and my great-grandmother entered the country.
Her children were born American citizens—and she died one herself. Grandma Mollie was illegal, but she wasn’t undocumented. Bribes are a better strategy than coyotes. I heard this story casually when I was young. The fear was gone by then. Those who had paid the bribes and those who had taken them had passed away, and what would the Immigration and Naturalization Service do? Deport a great-grandmother back to her country, which no longer even existed?
This is the immigrant narrative I turn to to escape from the black-and-white rhetoric on immigration. Grandma Mollie’s family came with her here to work hard and better themselves, and they did break laws along the way. They were criminals, but I cannot condemn them for it. Maybe at the turn of the last century we could have caught the bribe and sent her and her family back. But by now her thread is woven into the great weft of America. Her story is her own, but it’s intimately tied to that of our country.
So rather than taking to the battlements of the immigration debate, we should take to our homes. Before we condemn today’s immigrants in wide swaths, we must come to terms with our own mixed, complex pasts.
Louis R. Evans ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.