The older I get and the squarer my body becomes, I begin to resemble my ancestor aunts who stayed behind in Norway while four of their brothers, my father among them, immigrated to the USA.
The brothers came to Seattle because there was no work in Norway. The sixth and oldest stayed because being the oldest son of the oldest son he inherited the farm.
From all accounts, the brothers easily found work. They were skilled fishermen and willing to do heavy manual labor in industries such as construction and mining.
The money was good and enough to make up for the ribbings of other men who relentlessly called them “Ole” and teased them about their accents. Since they were white, their speech was the only way one would know they were different, although pickled herring for lunch could have been a giveaway.
I remember my father, by then a citizen, practicing speaking without an accent because he was taking on the leadership of a club. Someone suggested that he would be better without his accent. It didn’t take. I was too young to understand but it still made me sad.
Lately, I find myself thinking more about him, his brothers and their wives who settled into the USA and worked hard to be responsible and take care of their families.
What would it have felt like to have my father deported when he became ill with tuberculosis and couldn’t work anymore? Tuberculosis before medications was far more contagious than Ebola. People with TB like my father were isolated in sanatoriums and advised to stop doing heavy labor work.
What if he hadn’t been a citizen and could no longer do the work needed in the country? What if people saw him as a threat? What if it was today? Would he be deported?
The great migration from Europe to the “new America,” the land someone bumped into on the way to the Orient, began in the early 17th century. Great gobs of land brought pioneers and more and more families looking for a better way of life, a life in which they could practice their faith and take care of their families.
The native inhabitants of the land had the good sense to be wary upon first sight of the strangers but eventually came to accept the migrators with some exceptions. The migrators were into land ownership unlike the native inhabitants who rather saw the land as belonging to everyone.
History tells us that migrating land owners prevailed. If we were migrants, my father and I, we would have done well given that my father’s literal roots were in farming.
Not so good for the natives — history records the unfortunate death of many without immunity to disease brought to them by the migrators. In some cases entire tribes were decimated from contagious diseases. Neither were the natives immune to the migrants’ growing appetite for more land and, over time, they were corralled into smaller and smaller spaces.
It wasn’t that long ago that we imported workers into the USA. In the USA’s ever expanding agricultural years, more workers were required than those who migrated from Europe. There simply weren’t enough workers to do the work, especially workers willing to work for room and board only. So the landowners decided to import strong able bodied men from Africa. As one source described it “the demand for unpaid labor grew” during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Wealthy landowners and the agriculture industry thrived on the output of men and women who literally worked for slave wages — that is no wages. What if my father was imported against his will and then declared a free man in the middle of the 19th century after living and working as a slave for years?
I would have been a daughter of an imported slave. He and I — who knows where my mother was — were free and no longer wanted. Our value disappeared.
He or I would not be deported, but it would be years before we were treated as useful and equal, if at all. The image of disposable tissue comes to mind.
What about today? Me thinks the “demand for unpaid workers” continues whether for fast food or migrant farm workers.
Apparently, somewhere around 11 million people have immigrated to the USA to work and make better lives for their families. They passed go without going through channels. Why? Because most came for something better than they had and were willing to work for USA employers who pay below market wages. And, USA employers were willing to hire them for below market wages.
I am not sure what happened or even if it has happened that those USA employers no longer want these workers who would work cheap and stay silent for fear of being deported. I do hear more voices rising in protest against the workers’ presence.
They are blamed for taking American jobs instead of blaming employers who willfully flaunt the law and hire them. They are blamed for taking benefits such as medical care when they are sick or school for their children.
I’ve heard thousands of people at rallies cheer the speaker who would round them up and deport them but claims no action against those that have profited from their work at below market value.
If my father passed go and brought me to the USA as a child, I would be listening to people who hate my very presence and most of all my dreams. We would be living in fear of the day we were marched to the border much like the natives who were marched to a much smaller and barren piece of land.
Such a strange ironic twist that the sons and daughters of millions of migrators who passed go without as much as a single piece of paper seek to deport millions of migrators.
Bertha D. Cooper is retired from a 40-plus year career as a health care administrator focusing on the delivery system as a whole. She still does occasional consulting. She is a featured columnist at the Sequim Gazette. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.