Posts Tagged ‘Immigration’

My Immigration Story

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

In a nation of so many descendants of immigrants, there are a million stories. Most of them are about an ancestor who left their home to find a better life and to live in freedom. The stories are filled with heroism, idealism, and perseverance.

Here’s my story. It’s actually not about me, it’s about my mother’s mother, whom I always knew as “Grandma Sheridan”. But because I wouldn’t be an American without her, I like to think that it really is my story too.  It’s the story about how she became an American.

Grandma lived down the street from us when I was growing up, and we were always in and around her house. She was a wonderful, kind woman, who had seen many tough times but was always willing to help others. But her story wasn’t easy to piece together. Grandma didn’t like to talk about herself, or where she came from. And we had no contact with relatives from “over there”. So we’ve gradually accumulated documents, and drawn on the memories of relatives who are now gone to eternal life.

Grandma was born and baptized Elizabeth Dowe, in 1885, in a tiny hamlet named Aghabullogue, in County Cork, Ireland. (I don’t speak any Irish, but I’m told that the town’s name sounds something like “Ah-Buh-Log”, with a long “o”, emphasis on the last syllable and a barely pronounced hard “g”). As a child, she was known as Lizzie, and she lived with her parents John and Hannah Hill Dowe, along with three sisters and a brother. She was the youngest in the family. They were farmers, and if you know anything about 19th century rural Ireland, you know that was a hard life.

Her father and brother died at some point before 1900, when my Grandma was a young girl. According to the laws at the time, the farm passed to her uncle, so her family was turned out of their home and lost their livelihood. They lived for a short time in a house in a nearby area called Clonmoyle, but in 1901 they decided that they had enough of poverty in Ireland. They would go to America.

This is the point in every immigrant’s story that always makes me pause and wonder. My Grandma was only 15 years old. Her mother was illiterate in English and Irish, and she had nothing waiting for her in America — no profession, no job, no place to live. My Grandma and her sisters could read and write English, but only one was employed in Ireland, as a dressmaker. As far as we know, the only people they knew in America were some cousins, who had come over earlier. That’s not a lot to go on.

But what they had was an abundance of faith, hope, courage, and a yearning for a better life.

They arrived in New York in 1902. And here’s the funny part of the story. They were on a ship that entered New York harbor, and thus passed under the watchful eye of the great lady who lifted her lamp beside the golden door to welcome my Grandma. When the ship arrived at Ellis Island, there was an announcement that all passengers in steerage had to get off. But my Grandma’s mother had managed to get Second Class tickets, so they decided that the announcement didn’t apply to them, and they didn’t get off at Ellis Island. Instead, they sailed up to the pier in Manhattan and set foot in America without ever going through any of the legal immigration process.

And so — my Grandma Sheridan was an illegal alien.

They settled in New York, and my Grandma worked for a time as a domestic servant in the household of the publisher of the New York Times. In 1911, she married John Sheridan, another Irish immigrant who was a greengrocer with the A&P Company. He was an American citizen already, and that’s how my Grandma became a legitimate American citizen. They lived mostly in the northern Bronx (in the same neighborhood where I still live), and had six children, the youngest of whom was my beloved mother, Claire.

My grandfather died in 1932, leaving Grandma to finish raising her young family — my mother was only 5 years old at the time. Grandma struggled, relying on income from the older children and dividends from A&P stock. But she was a firm believer in education, and she sent all of her children to college, even the three girls — which was certainly remarkable for that time. She was also a committed Catholic who took her faith seriously. There was never any question about the faith being handed down to her children.

Grandma took her American citizenship seriously. The flag flew every holiday. She was a voracious reader of the newspapers, followed current events very closely, and was absolutely committed to voting in every election. I recall very clearly her insisting that we had a duty to vote, and that if we didn’t vote, we couldn’t complain.

Her three sons all served honorably in the military in World War II — one was an officer in the Navy, another an officer in the Army Air Corps, and one was a grunt in the Army who landed on D+2 and went on to be awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. At least six of her grandchildren have served in the military, and many of us have served in government offices. Patriotism runs deep in the Sheridan blood, which you would expect with Grandma as a role model.

Grandma didn’t have any interest in being considered an “Irish-American” — she was absolutely American, through and through, and she was proud and grateful for this country. When she died at the age of 95, she had lived a rich, long, generous life in her beloved home country.

A few years ago, my wife Peggy and I visited Ireland, and went to Aghabullogue. It’s still a tiny hamlet, with little more than a church, a store, a football field and a pub, surrounded by beautiful rich farmland. I stood in the graveyard of the old parish church where my grandmother was baptized, and where she went to Mass for the first fifteen years of her life. The chapel has since fallen into ruins, replaced by a more modern building close by. It was profoundly moving to look around, and realize that the scene was virtually identical to what my Grandma saw every day of her youth. I was able to see the world that she left so that her future family — and mine — could be born in America.

Grandma Sheridan’s story is about an America that was willing to give a poor homeless girl a chance at hope and prosperity. I believe that story is still true today. I believe that America is still open to other young girls and boys who are yearning for the same kind of life that my Grandma was able to have, the kind of life that she was brave enough to give to her children, grandchildren, and beyond.

I believe in my immigration story. I think it is the story of America. And I thank God for it, and for Grandma Sheridan for having lived it.

Trying to Think about Immigration

Monday, July 21st, 2014

The debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch in America, fueled by the heart-rending spectacle of the plight of all those unaccompanied children who have been coming to our southern border in recent months.

I am no expert on immigration, but I’ve been trying to think about this issue from a Catholic perspective, guided by the teachings of our bishops and our Holy Father. It seems to me that there are a number of fundamental principles that are in tension in this area, and it extraordinarily difficult to make them all fit together well.

Let’s take as our starting point a teaching from St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community (25).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the basic issues very clearly:

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

These principles show us that the way we think about this problem is the key consideration.  There is no question that our civil authorities have an obligation to preserve and protect the common good of our particular political society, which includes enactment and enforcement of just laws. People have a right to emigrate to seek prosperity and freedom for themselves and their families, but they also have an obligation to obey the laws of the nation they enter.

But we always have to remember that human laws and political structures don’t exist as ends in themselves, and they don’t have the preeminent place in the hierarchy of goods. They don’t define the full scope of human aspiration or fulfillment. States are purely provisional entities that exist solely to provide for the good of the people within them.  I love America, but it is not a divinely-ordained institution, and it is not essential to the divine will or to the plan of salvation. To think otherwise can come very close to a form of idolatry.

As a result, we have to think outside of our political boundaries, and be concerned with all members of the human family — not just those who happen to hold a particular citizenship, or who speak a certain language, or who had the good fortune to have ancestors who emigrated prior to a certain date, or who managed to find a home within some arbitrary political boundaries.

Our policy solutions also can’t be dominated solely by economic factors.  We have to beware of any way of thinking that treats immigrants as mere means to be used for ends, welcomed to the extent that they are useful to us and discarded when they are not. People are not objects, and must be treated as the image of God among us.

Articulating these principles is easy.  Finding the right policies to implement them is certainly not so easy.  Our bishops and the Holy Father are not saying that we have to have open borders, or that people can disregard the law at a whim.  They are saying that we need to address the humanitarian needs of immigrants — particularly the unaccompanied children — as best we can, as our top priority.  We then have to work to reunite them with family members, without just throwing them on buses back or interning them in refugee camps.  Long-term answers would then include repatriation, or admitting them as refugees or as temporary residents based on an evaluation of their individual cases.

On top of this, we have to make sure that we work with the governments in the source and transit countries to improve the awful social conditions that have led to this emigration, and to prevent exploitation of migrants.  This is crucial.  The drug trade — largely fueled by drug use in America — has led to a disastrous disintegration of much of Latin American society.  The problem of immigration can’t be addressed without confronting this reality, and accepting our responsibility for correcting it.

When we listen to the Catholic perspective on this issue, we see that persons come first in our considerations, and our priorities start to fall into place.  We won’t’t make decisions based on fear, suspicion, party politics, or prejudice.   And we can work together to formulate sensible public policies that promote the common good and respect the fundamental human rights and needs of all.