Building Walls/Birthright Citizenship

The photographs in the header are the work and property of: Darko Vojinovic/AP, Robert Atanasovski via Getty Images, Milos Bicanski via Getty Images, and Robert Atanasovski via Getty Images listed in order from left to right. The photographs accompanied the following on Huffington Post: Heart-Rending Photos Of Migrant Children Caught In Border Clashes by Katie Sola and the AP news release entitled Macedonia Troops Fire Stun Grenades At Crowds Of Migrants On Border. The quote is from a sonnet called New Colossus by Emma Lazarus and is mounted on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.

This blog post will not be about the myriad of dumb, crazy and incendiary comments made by Republican politicians about immigrants, legal or otherwise. If you are interested in reading about the real experiences of current immigrants or undocumented Americans please read/visit: an Op-Ed piece at the NYTimes, Jose Antonio Vargas’s site here, and the American Psychological Association’s site which also contains a film and outside references here.

John Logan flanked by his two sons John and William in approximately 1923.
John Logan flanked by his two sons John and William in approximately 1923.

My post is about some of my ancestors who were (as were the ancestors of every American except the individuals of solely Native American descent) immigrants. The ancestors I’m specifically going to reference occupy two separate branches of my family tree but both are my great-grandfathers. Both traveled through Ellis Island (to search for ancestors or find out more visit the Ellis Island Foundation) during the 1900-1914 time period which is considered the peak of operations at the processing center which, during that time period, handled 5,000 – 10,000 immigrants a day. It is estimated that the ancestors of about 40% of all Americans actually waited in line on the islands known as Ellis Island to gain acceptance into the United States.

My grandfather’s father was named John Logan after his long foreign last name was shortened by a government employee working at Ellis Island. He arrived in 1903 and by the 1920 census he is a homeowner with a wife (whose father had arrived in America in the late 1800’s), 2 sons, and a daughter. He died sometime between the 1920 and 1925. 

Left to right: Frank O'Donnell, daughter Betty, granddaughters Patty and Barbara, son-in-law Frank Perko.
Left to right: Frank O’Donnell, daughter Betty, granddaughters Patty and Barbara, son-in-law Frank Perko.

My grandmother’s father was an Irishman named Frank O’Donnell who hailed from County Cork, Ireland. He arrived in America in 1907 (the year Ellis Island processed over a million immigrants) as a young man and left behind, rumor has it, a wife and a child. Frank (called Pop by his daughters and Grandpop by the children who came after) worked as a farm hand and eventually met, wooed, and absconded with one of the farmer’s daughters named Elsie. Unfortunately, due to that wife back in Ireland, he couldn’t actually marry her so they just set up house and pretended to be married. They would go on to have six daughters, including a set of twins, and 25 grandchildren.

My grandmother’s stories of her Depression era childhood, like a lot of personal stories from that time period, have elements that are hard to imagine. She talked about chewing tar like gum, the boy down the street who tipped over his own mother’s outhouse every Mischief Night, and the scandalous divorced woman down the street who wore make-up (my grandmother and the twins would try to pick the old make-up from the woman’s trash bin.) She also talked of having to go get Pop out of the bar before he drank his paycheck, the fact that the girls slept in one bed because the rented house only had two bedrooms, and of running alongside the freight train to gather coal to heat the house. Of her Catholic mother’s shame at having to live without the church wedding. Of the Irish uncle who would visit and take Frank away drinking more or stay drinking and singing and drinking even more in the tiny house.

My Great-Grandparents finally married in 1948, secretly, in Elkton, MD. Their youngest daughter, my Great-aunt Betty, was only 10 so she spent the night with one of her married, older sisters (my grandmother.) My mother’s generation remembers Frank regaling them with his feats of daring such as carrying his rifle in his teeth while wading across a raging river to elude capture by the enemies. As they aged they learned to look at their mothers or their grandmother for the head shake or nod that would tell them if the tale was true. By the time I came along, the 2nd great-grandchild born in amongst the last of the grandchildren Frank and Elsie would live to see, it never really occurred to me that the stories were real. Grandpop was the oldest person I had ever seen. He wore a white shirt, buttoned all the way up, everyday. He wore black pants, and outside the house, a black coat without regard for the weather. He never had stubble and he carried a hat and a cane. They had afternoon tea at the old rented house with little cookies that were not sweet. They also had those soft, melt in your mouth pastel colored mints and those weird assorted licorice boxes that include pink and black licorice stacked on top of one another. Elsie, as I remember her, seemed quiet, gentle, and soft. Her hands were red, swollen, and completely gnarled with arthritis by the time she died. Those huge, almost useless mitts must have been incredibly painful, but she still clutched her rosary.

Later, when Ellis Island announced they were building a Wall of Honor, my grandmother researched a bit and found Frank’s ship information. Although she harbored a lifelong distaste for excessive drinking and drunkards, in general, she paid to have his name inscribed on one of the stainless steel panels outside the Great Hall at Ellis Island.

I wish I had asked more questions; that I knew more about the whys and whens and wheres of my grandparents and great-grandparents. About Grandpa Stein and the drunken Irish uncle. But I didn’t. I can guess a little though. It was scary moving away from everything and everyone they ever knew. Saying good-bye to people they may never see again. People in America spoke a different language and had different customs. Some people were mean to them for no apparent reason or because they hated people from other countries. But they were fleeing from poverty, war, starvation, and religious persecution – the same types of reasons the Puritans and all immigrants leave their homes. Migrating was better for them in the long run, it was a good opportunity for a better life. For them, for their children … their children’s children. For me and for you.  Migrating is still sometimes the best option.

Support fair immigration policies.