“Journey” isn’t merely the band responsible for most of America’s worst karaoke. It’s a loaded word, with multiple meanings. For example, the journey of self discovery. Our journey through life. A journey across the country. Since the passing of my Grandpa Sam, I’ve been working on a journey through the past. My attempt at keeping my family legacy alive, after the death of our center piece. I always knew I came from an immigrant family, both on my mother’s side and on my father’s side. From a young age I knew the general story of my father’s father, Franciszek Wisniewski or Grandpa Frank. The big, quiet, scary man I have vague memories of from childhood. Smoking a pipe and rarely speaking except to ask my Grandma Jane in his deep Polish accent if she’d salted the lettuce and the occasional, “Son of bitch” when warranted. How he flew with the Polish Air Force and was smuggled out of a POW camp after being shot down, in a used Nazi uniform by a nurse who, I assume, must have fallen for him. I don’t know much of what happened next except that he somehow made it to England, joined back up with the RAF and came to the States in 1950. I know that he never wanted to speak about what happened during the war, that his hands shook until the day he died and that possibly the only thing to ever frighten him was being labeled a communist during the Red Scare. These days I imagine him to be like Brad Pitt in “Inglorious Bastards”, a badass Nazi hunter righteously cutting a swath across Europe. Logically I know that romanticizing what he did does not do him justice. It must have been more terrifying and soul crushingly sad than any character Brad Pitt could ever play. Yet he just kept going, finally making his way to the U.S. where he denounced all violence from his past life and diligently worked on the line at a Ford plant until he retired, living as an upright citizen, with a deep appreciation for the life he was given a second chance to live. The ONLY member of his family that received such a chance.
The story of my Sicilian side has almost become popular folklore these days. Taking a boat through Ellis Island and arriving here as dirt poor immigrants. Making a small fortune bootlegging booze from Canada, losing it all to the mafia when Great Grandpa Andrea Spada was killed for his speakeasy. My great-grandmother, only 16 when she had Grandpa Sam (Nee Salvatore Spada), moving in with her extended family who came to the States around the same time, and raising multiple generations of Spadas and Pazienzas all crammed into a house in Detroit. They became carpenters, brick layers, soldiers, plumbers, small business owners and even “fake” musicians (but that’s a whole other story). They clawed their way into the middle class with grit and determination, sprinkled with the occasional run in with the mob. Blue collar, salt of the earth, loud, passionate, boisterous and loving, they embodied the American Dream and literally could have come straight out of central casting in Hollywood.
I could go on. My Grandma Jane’s family the Jagodzinski’s. Grandma Lucy’s family the Maiorana’s. More consonants, vowels and Joe’s, Pete’s and Andy’s than I have time for here. I’m serious the Sicilians were basically ALL named Joe, Pete or Andy. But I digress, because as fascinating as my family’s personal stories are they’re not the point of this blog. One day I’ll write their stories, just not today. Because before I can truly celebrate this legacy of conjoined, perfectly timed journeys that eventually brought me into existence I first have to acknowledge that none of them, none of us myself included, would be here if the circumstances surrounding immigration today had been in place back then. Grandpa Frank was from a communist country that had already fallen behind the Iron Curtain by the time he came to this country. The 1950’s equivalent of a terrorist. The Sicilians? Dirt poor, unskilled laborers none of whom spoke English until the first generation was born here. The 1920’s equivalent of day laborers. Instead of a brick with our name on it at Ellis Island, they would have been met with chants of, “Build that wall”. Their path to citizenship would have been non-existent and they would have been constantly plagued with the fear of deportation.
Currently, permanent legal immigration to this country takes an average of eight years and is limited to those who have advanced skill sets. There are approximately 4 million people in line and it costs at a minimum thousands of dollars. For those who come here on work visas, the path is littered with difficult, cost prohibitive legalities and bureaucracy. I’m an American Citizen with a Master’s Degree in law and public policy and my journey to figure this all out led to a plethora of “What the fuck’s?” and half a bottle of Tylenol. The best way I can think of to explain it is, imagine your taxes on a combination of steroids and crack. There is no doubt in my mind that had Great Grandpa Andrea Spada been faced with this mine field, he would not have been able to navigate it. Grandpa Frank probably could have figured his way through it, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been his first mine field literally or figuratively, but he would have had to declare his Polish ethnicity and therefore he probably would have avoided it out of fear of being labeled a Communist (read Terrorist). So like the vast majority of undocumented workers today, they would have been in a situation where they got here legally but due to these social and intellectual complexities, they would have eventually ended up in violation of immigration law and subject to deportation and exploitation. Their rise into the middle class would have been stalled out. No secure union jobs that led to home ownership and college funds. No small business ownership. Three, going on four, entire generations of productive, successful citizens either gone or denied the opportunities that made each subsequent generation more productive than the last. Forced into the shadows or out of the country all together, either way you wouldn’t be reading this right now because I wouldn’t be here.
So my journey through the past to honor my family’s legacy has not led me to write their novels. Instead, I’ve decided the best way to honor them is to ensure that the principles that drove them to embark on their journeys are not washed away on a tidal wave of uninformed Xenophobia. One of these principles being my right to speak truth to power, so here I go…
There is no such thing as an illegal human being. Any status that one does or does not possess, is not the basis of their humanity. When the term “Illegal” is used as it applies to a person’s status, you are essentially washing away the humanity of that person. Their worth is now based on said status, as opposed to their personhood. Second, the majority of the time that the term “illegal” is used in the context of immigration, it is not applied correctly. Immigration is a matter of CIVIL LAW, the exception being when someone crosses a border without going through the proper channels. However, even in those LIMITED instances when someone “sneaks” into the country the criminality of the act is limited to that of a misdemeanor. As a point of reference for this, if you’ve ever shut the Star Spangled Banner off in the middle of the song (even if you personally just didn’t finish singing it) you’ve committed a misdemeanor in Massachusetts. If you’ve committed adultery in Michigan, you’ve committed a misdemeanor. If you’ve used profanity in front of two or more people in Mississippi you’ve also committed a misdemeanor. I could go on, but I think you get the point. The majority of “illegal aliens” have NOT committed a crime, they’ve over stayed a visa which they obtained legally and today’s complicated immigration policy prohibited them from moving forward towards citizenship. Meaning they are NOT “illegal” at all, they are undocumented.
So why the disproportionate outrage at the few who have committed the misdemeanor of sneaking across the border? Surely people are not this rabid about punishing those who dare to curse in public, right? They don’t pay taxes? That’s incorrect. Undocumented workers contribute $12 billion annually in the form of income, property, sales and excise taxes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “Undocumented immigrants’ nationwide average effective tax rate is an estimated 8 percent,” the report said. “To put this in perspective, the top 1 percent of taxpayers pay an average nationwide effective tax rate of just 5.4 percent.” Keep in mind that they also found that the average household income of an undocumented family is $30,000. That’s roughly $24,000 less than the average household income nation wide.
They commit crimes? According to the Cato Institute both legal and illegal immigrants have lower incarceration rates than that of natural-born citizens. They take our jobs? A study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shows that this is ALSO wrong, “We found little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term,” said Francine D. Blau, an economics professor at Cornell University who led the group that produced the 550-page report.” They cost us in healthcare and welfare? WRONG. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, otherwise known as PRWORA, excluded undocumented workers from receiving public assistance including SNAP, publicly funded healthcare services and income supplementation. Undocumented persons are also much less likely to seek out healthcare via emergency room services due to fear of deportation.
If after all of this, one can still not get passed the misdemeanor level of their “criminality”, as at this point in time that’s about the only thing to continue justification for mass deportation, wall building, or anti-immigrant sentiment, then one must assume you place devotion to the strict adherence of law above all else, including positive economic effects, diversity, the morality and religious basis of sheltering and housing displaced persons, the concept of the American Dream, etc. Okay, I must then assume that one is not a hypocrite and would only be willing to solve the immigration issue through constitutionally valid remedies. As that would be the LEGAL way for us to fix the problem. In which case, it would cost approximately $12,500 to deport one undocumented worker. There’s about 11 million undocumented workers here. Which means it would be seriously hypocritical to complain about any money spent on undocumented people, because although I’m not a math person the cost of mass deportation will be exponentially higher than any costs incurred by undocumented workers. And that’s not even factoring in what this population contributes to the economy or the costs of increased border patrols and wall building.
So this is just a small taste of what I owe my Grandparents and Great Grandparents for having the courage to come here. I owe it to them to continue to speak out for those that want nothing more and nothing less, than the opportunities afforded to my family and I. Because if Andrea Spada and Franciszek Wisniewski were worthy of a shot at becoming middle class Americans, then so is every other human being. Because that’s what Andrea and Franciszek were. HUMANS. And that’s what every immigrant, regardless of documentation, is also. A HUMAN. Unless you can argue that some humans are more inherently worthy than others, you cannot spew Xenophobia without directing it at every person who has ever been an immigrant. I’m guessing that most people cannot make that argument and therefore willing to bet that for every one person who wants to build a wall, there’s two that will build a ladder. That’s a whole lot of ladders, so it’s a good thing I know a lot of talented carpenters. FYI, they’re all probably named Joe, Andy or Pete.
And, for those who face the harrowing task of traveling down the path to the American Dream, make no mistake it will be hard. But the vast majority of the American public supports you and in the immortal words of the band “Journey”… Don’t stop believing.