One of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island was my grandfather. He came here in 1923, and I can still see his name on the original roster on the internet. Through a long and contorted saga, my grandfather was driven into the Arabian desert, left for dead, became a slave of a wheat merchant in North Africa for four years, escaped to Marseilles, France where he worked on the docks as a longshoreman, purchased steerage fare on a ship named Majestic, and finally made it here with five dollars in his pocket.
My grandfather came here legally, learned to speak English, and became a lawful taxpayer. When he arrived in 1923, the name on the ship manifest was Minas Altoonian his Armenian name. Shortly after he arrived, he changed to a more American name Mike Gosh. Most of the Altoonian family was massacred by the Muslim Turks. Mike found his mother and new stepfather here in America with the last name Goshkarian. When he decided to shorten his name, it was about more than simplicity. It was a statement about wanting to participate in our country. To this day many legal immigrants Americanize their names because they desire to both simplify the pronunciation and assimilate into American culture.
Mike located some of his family members in Racine, Wisconsin, moved to Chicago to work for the Yellow Cab Company, then moved to Detroit to work for the Ford Motor Company, and worked there until he retired. He then bought a gasoline service station and operated it until he retired again at the age of 70. After that, he worked for a housing construction company until he retired for the final time at the age of 80. In short, he contributed to the community and lived by our civic rules.
We all love to hear a great rags to riches story. As Americans, we love the diverse cuisine, cultural customs, holidays and vocabulary. We accept immigrants’ hard work ethic, taxpaying participation and cultural gifts as enhancements to our rich fabric of American life. However, the stories today are very different from 1923 because illegal immigration has become so prevalent and many don’t seem to want to become part of the American culture. Assimilation doesn’t mean you give up your favorite foods or your language. It just means that you enlarge yourself to be part of what is already happening on our soil. Those who enter legally have a natural loyalty, respect and gratitude for our country. Those who sneak in under the dark cloud of illegality are prevented from openly participating in our history, language and customs. They are condemned to remain perpetually on the bottom rung of the economic and social ladder. Those who enter illegally are also showing a blatant disregard for our rules.
Perhaps our rules need to be revised, but until they are, we cannot allow people to break them. Recent attempts by the U.S. Congress to revise immigration rules have failed because of the lack of agreement on how to address the problem. Some want to turn the entire process into a free-for-all.
Others want to simply enlarge immigration quotas. While Congress is arguing, illegal immigrants continue to cross our borders. Those crossing the border illegally receive no scrutiny whatsoever for such concerns as physical and mental health or criminal background.
A timeless principle is that you get more of what you reward. As long as people find jobs and a standard of living that is superior to what they had back home, they will continue to come to America. For our part, we embrace immigrants as long as they abide by the rules.
However, the federal government has let us down by failing to understand its proper role to protect our borders. Occasionally, a constituent will write me about a problem that is under the jurisdiction of the federal, county or local government. I try to help my constituents by informing them of what powers are granted to a state representative and what belong elsewhere.
Our federal officials seem confused about what powers belong to them. If our federal government cannot enforce their own immigration rules, it will fall to the states to do whatever is within our power. The level of inaction at the federal level calls for a response from us on the state and local levels.
Now I have some good news. After studying the laws that can be passed by the states, I am confident that we can find ways to strengthen our state regardless of the inaction of Congress.