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Illegal Immigrant

Sgt First Class Denny Meyer

I was born in the USA; but my mother was an illegal immigrant.  She arrived by ship, in steerage, at Ellis Island within sight of the Statue of Liberty; presenting herself to American Immigration agents as WOP, without papers.  She was fleeing the Nazi genocide in the late 1930s, one of several hundred thousand refugees from the Holocaust and horror of WWII in Europe.  She was interned on Ellis Island, in the crowded open bay barracks of the era, for over a month while letters were written, her case was considered amongst so many others; until finally a distant relative paid a bond; and she was set free to begin a new life in New York City.  She lived another sixty years here, first earning her living cleaning other people's toilets; and decades later retiring as a shopkeeper and real estate broker.  We were never wealthy; but she earned every single cent she had in America, and taught me to do the same.

I look and speak like any other shlubby cranky old veteran shuffling around the VA hospital here, unshaven, thick in the waist, wobbling slowly on a cane, and being grumpy.  I speak Standard American with a touch of nasal Noo Yawk slang spicing it up a bit.  Having served as a sailor in the Navy and a Sergeant in the Army, I can curse like any other dysfunctional old Vietnam Era vet.

But, English wasn't my first language.  Through the late 1940s, as an infant and toddler during the dismal post war years, we were among hundreds of thousands of Jewish-German refugee families who had settled in Washington Heights, on New York City's Upper West Side.  The native language of our parents was German.  We children were the first Baby Boomers, conceived and born in celebration of the end of WWII.  In our neighborhood, we children all spoke a mishmash of kindergarten GermEnglish, mostly German with bits of baby English sprinkled in.  There were hundreds of thousands of us and we all understood each other perfectly.  We thought it was English.

It wasn't until first grade, around 1951-2, that we began to learn real English from the other kids we met in public elementary school in uptown NYC, those from Puerto Rico, who spoke Spanglish, and our African American peers who spoke Harlemeese.  We went home with new words we learned from them, and they went home with words they learned from us.  We all thought it was English.

Our parents were busy assimilating also.  By the time we came home from school and began answering our parents in English or what we thought was English, they began answering us back in English as best as they could.  They very much wanted to be as American as their children were.  Then, when I was eight, we left the safe familiar linguistic cocoon of the urban immigrant neighborhood and moved to suburbia on Long Island.  All of our new neighbors out there were people who called themselves "Eye-Talian" and spoke a soft broad Noo Yawk dialect that I call "Lawn Guylindeese."  They called the 70 mile Long Island suburb where they lived, "Lawn Guylind."  My immigrant parents called it, "Lunk Guilandt."

By the time I reached Junior High School, I'd managed to totally ditch my Peter Lorre 'Casablanca' German accent and spoke pure American English, or at least pure Lawn Guylindeese.  Out there, instead of "hello," kids said, "Waddya say!"  Then, I met my first real best friend, the only other 'immigrant kid' in our suburban school, the child of Jewish Dutch refugees who had also moved to suburbia to assimilate.  We greeted each other in English with "waddya say!"  But each of us instantly detected the others' almost invisible European accent.  In less than a minute we'd reverted to babbling at each other in rapid fire GermDutchEnglish as our classmates gawked at us mystified. "Waddafuk'r you guys tawkin?" They asked in what they thought was pure English.

My mother, the illegal immigrant, raised me as an American patriot.  This was the country that defeated the evil of Hitler, this was the country that gave her sanctuary as she fled for her life.  This was the country that gave her citizenship after Hitler voided German citizenship of all German Jews in the fall of 1942, making her stateless.  The first words that she wanted me to learn were: "There is nothing more precious than American freedom!"  The second set had to do with, "Always speak up in the face of oppression!"  When I was four years old in 1949, happily waiving a little American flag on the Fourth of July, she never imagined that I'd come home covered in blood from my first civil rights march at the age of 13 in 1960; nor that I'd become a proud sailor and soldier in America's armed forces.  It never occurred to her that I'd be gay and fall in love with a non-Jewish immigrant from Southeast Asia.  Oy!  But, that's the way it all worked out.  She didn't make me gay, but she made me a civil rights activist and patriot.

My life partner, my lover, was a legal resident, invited here to work by the United States of America.  We were together for nearly 20 years.   He too earned every cent he had here.  He started out, here, pushing a company's internal mail cart.  He worked for the same company the whole time, and progressed to become a corporate executive.  We lived our lives together long before anyone ever imagined that we deserved a right to marriage.  If we could have married, he could have become an American citizen as my spouse; but he died before any of that began to become a reality.  We didn't need a piece of paper, we had our love.  But, we had to constantly deal with 'being unrelated' as we rented our home, and dealt with the bureaucracy of hospital policies, taxes and, ultimately, death benefits.

Ignorant anti immigrant idiots, who think of themselves as what President Lyndon B. Johnson called, "Murkins," don't seem to have a clue that the only real original Americans are what Christopher Columbus mistakenly called 'Indians' because he thought he'd sailed around the world to India.  If they're not Navajo, Algonquin, Sioux, Anupat, or other Native American, they should keep their damn mouths shut, because they are just the spawn of other immigrants.

This American son of an illegal immigrant volunteered to serve his country at the height of the Vietnam War, while his all-American peers were running away to Canada to avoid serving.  While his all-American straight peers lied and said they were gay to avoid serving, this son on an illegal immigrant lied and said he was straight so he could serve.  During a decade of 'serving in silence' I had to listen to endless hate-filled discrimination about queers, Jews, Black Americans, and immigrants.  I left honorably as a Sgt. First Class.  It wasn't easy, but I made my mother proud.

I've talked with and interviewed dozens of gay service members and veterans who were children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees, who joined out of patriotism.  When I see a freshly arrived young illegal immigrant, I don't see a dirty unwashed foreign invader; I see someone who will proudly wear an American uniform, defending our freedom.  Someone has to do it; I guess we're not afraid to get our hands dirty and do hard and dangerous work.

The Nazis in 1930s Germany fanned the flames of xenophobia, inspiring hateful crowds of ordinary citizens to shout "Auslander Raus!" (Foreigners Out!) and burn the  homes, Synagogues, and shops of those scapegoated for exclusion.   My mother, along with hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors, fled for her life, and found sanctuary and freedom in America.  And now, today, television news has shown seemingly ordinarily boring suburban Americans, inspired by conservative politicians, shouting hatefully at busloads of frightened little children seeking sanctuary in America.  Other than the language and the nation, nothing is different.  For shame!

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