One of the most pervasive taunts from the anti-immigrant mob is: "What part of illegal don't you understand?" Over and over again, people declare that their ancestors came to the United States "legally."
If you are the descendant of immigrants, as most of us are, how do you know the status of your grandparents or great-grandparents? Can you prove it? Do you have documents?
It's not easy. Over the years of this country's existence, the laws have changed, and changed, and changed again, as have U.S. borders. In the early years, there were no immigration laws at all, and at other times, the laws were written specifically to exclude people from certain countries. Who was being discriminated against has also changed with the times, but a wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities have been deemed undesirable as citizens—but welcomed as workers without any rights.
Of course, the indigenous peoples of this continent can rightly claim that none of the rest of us are here "legally."
I am part of the second generation of my family to be born here. All four of my grandparents have been deceased for a long time, and there is little information about their origins besides the family story that my father's parents came from Russia, and my mother's came from Poland. We have always assumed that they came through Ellis Island early in the 20th century, looking for a better life, a safer place to be, and the opportunity to raise a family and prosper in the golden United States.
I have searched at www.ancestry.com, and I have searched at www.jewishgen.org. So far, the only record I can find is of my father's parents (and their growing family) in the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Censuses, where they are clearly labeled "Alien" and give their immigration year as 1913. But there's no record of any of them coming through Ellis Island (www.ellisisland.org) during that year, or any other year. It is likely that their Americanized names were not the names under which they immigrated—but that is exactly my point: How do you prove your family came here "legally"?
I questioned my 80-year-old dad more directly, and though he thinks he remembers his father voting eventually (which means he became a naturalized citizen at some point), my grandmother never voted and was never a citizen. She was undocumented her whole life, and it is likely that both of my mother's parents were, too.
The beauty of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is that, because we were born here, my father is a U.S. citizen, and so am I. That is one of the promises of this country, and I am proud of that openness and that welcoming attitude. I am grateful to be here.
I don't care how or when your family arrived here. I don't care what country your ancestors were born in. I care about the warmth of your heart, the valuable work you put into our community, and your friendliness and trustworthiness as my neighbor.
To all the people who say they want to "take back" Arizona, I say: This is not your state, and this is not your country. It is ours, a country of mostly immigrants, where no one should ask about your original documentation, but only about the contribution you make today—and undocumented residents make a huge and wonderful contribution to the Arizona I love.
The mothers you say don't belong here are just like my grandmother. The children you say don't deserve citizenship are just like my father and me. Except that we have white skin.
So, here's my question for those who claim that "legality" is all that matters: "What part of justice, of fairness, of compassion don't you understand?" And where are your grandparents' papers?
The author has been an activist for peace and justice since 1968; she has lived and loved in Tucson since 1998.