I often think of my grandmother Ulrich coming to America on a small steamship all alone. She was such a quiet shy woman that it is difficult for me to imagine how frightening the trip may have been for her. I suppose that knowing that my grandfather was waiting for her at the end of the journey gave her the courage to leave behind the life that she had known in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary.
I ask myself what convinced Grandma and Grandpa Ulrich to take such a huge risk in coming to an unknown land. Things surely must have been terrible for them at home or they would not have been so daring. They would never again see their families nor the places where they had once lived. Theirs was a fresh start in a place that promised them an opportunity to improve their lot. Back then they were not restricted by quotas or any particular immigration rules. They were welcomed for the labor that they might provide in a rapidly growing nation. All they had to do was pass a medical exam upon arrival to be certain that they were not bringing disease with them.
Once they were here nobody really followed up on where they were or what they were doing. My grandfather rapidly applied for citizenship and became naturalized within a few years of landing in Galveston. I don’t think my grandmother ever bothered to complete the process. I suspect that she saw less need to do so than her husband who would always be the main breadwinner in the family.
They eventually purchased a small plot of land just east of downtown Houston and built a small home there where they raised four boys and four girls. Life was not easy but my grandfather often declared that it was far better than what it might have been in the old country. Like many new immigrants to this country they were often treated with taunts and suspicion. Their language and appearance was different and therefore considered inferior by some. They worked hard to overcome their hardships and by the time those of us who were their grandchildren came along nobody would have known that we had a rather recent immigrant history.
Things have changed markedly since the days when all one needed to do is show up at a port of entry to find a place in the United States. Over time stricter and stricter immigration laws made it more and more difficult for people like my grandmother and grandfather to earn the opportunity to live and work here. Nonetheless the same desire for a better life without fear or poverty or a restrictive government continues to fuel the flow of humans attempting to enter our country by any means whether legal or not. The process that was once so easy for my grandparents has become a gooey mess.
Our approach in the past few decades has been an attempt to create easy solutions for problems that are incredibly complex. The result is that we ignore the realities of immigration problems year after year, allowing them to only become more difficult. Simply erecting a wall is not a permanent fix any more than becoming lax about enforcing current rules. For the most part nobody has done a good job of reforming our badly broken system. We are simply not serious about working together to find workable long term solutions. Instead we argue about who, how and what should comprise a system for immigration but never get past the shouting match. All the while we end up either being too draconian or too lax in our treatment of people who are not that different from my grandmother and grandfather.
Perhaps our worst situation involves the young people who were brought here as children and have never known any place but the United States but who are technically illegal immigrants. We can’t even agree on some form of amnesty and pathway to citizenship for them. Meanwhile situations in many parts Central and South America are so horrific that people are willing to risk everything to find a way of becoming part of our country. Walls and restrictions and rules only work so much when people are desperate.
Both former President Trump and now President Biden reacted to immigration issues too quickly upon taking office. President Trump made sweeping changes within weeks of his inauguration that were ill considered and perhaps even illegal. President Biden has done much the same in an ill fated effort to bring a more humane face to our immigration policies. Both sets of executive orders created chaos rather than solutions mainly because they were based on the idea that we can fix the problems easily and without sacrifices from each differing points of view or consideration of what rules we are willing to actually enforce.
The last time we had sweeping immigration reform was during the Reagan era. That was well over thirty years ago. Since that time nobody has wanted to do anything beyond quick cosmetic fixes. It is long past time for our lawmakers to set aside politics and actually work together to create a reasonable solution for a problem that will continue to plague us until we become serious about how best to approach it. Unless we as citizens demand that our elected officials quit bickering and grandstanding there will be not good answers and we will continue to throw both money and resources to the wind. So far nothing has proven to be the answer. Now it is time to find one. Surely we have enough intelligence and compassion to figure it out. If not, then expect the difficulties to continue no matter who holds office.