Robert Scheer: My Mother, ‘the Illegal Alien’?
Editor’s note: This article was originally posted in 2006.
It was Monday evening, and there I was on a downtown Los Angeles street corner as dusk fell, watching the pro-immigrant marchers stream past, as they had done all day, heading toward City Hall.
I had just been moved to tears by one sign carried by what seemed to be a family stating, “We are workers not criminals,” when a fellow spectator began heckling the marchers. Reacting without thinking, I heckled him — there was this instant hatred between myself and this man I had never met.
It startled me, this pent-up yet still raw rage over the persecution of immigrants. I know where it comes from: My immigrant mother always lived with the fear of deportation.
Like so many May Day protesters taking part in “A Day Without Immigrants,” I know about having an otherwise law-abiding family member who spends decades working long, hard hours for abysmally low wages under miserable working conditions, ever attendant to the orders of employers who don’t care that they are violating the law. And if you object by joining a union and going on strike? Well, they can turn you in to the INS, and you’re trouble no more.
I don’t know exactly how my mother, Ida Kuran, got into this country, but unlike my German Protestant father, who had a far easier time, her name does not appear on the Ellis Island immigrant rolls. What I do know is that she fled Russia soon after the Soviet revolution when the Communists, upon consolidating their power, began imprisoning members of the leftist Jewish organization for which she was a very active youth organizer.
Thus, she could have been one of the many Soviet Jewish dissidents welcomed to United States citizenship a half-century later. Being European, she could have easily become an American had she turned apolitical once she entered this country. But she wouldn’t abandon her radical beliefs, and was involved in stormy labor struggles on the streets of New York City within months of getting off the boat.
Soon, she had a growing rap sheet of strike-related arrests. Somewhere along the way, a lawyer convinced her that if she applied for citizenship she would be deported as undesirable. She registered every January as an alien, obtained a legal Social Security card, and paid her income tax every one of the 45 years she operated a knitting machine in New York’s sweatshop garment factories.
At one point, she received notice from the government that she no longer had to register annually. That was fine for years, until she happened to be hospitalized during one of those inevitable phases of anti-immigrant hysteria and somebody reported her to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The INS didn’t show up at my house, where my mother, in her 80s, then was living. It just sent increasingly threatening letters telling her that if she didn’t appear at the INS office in downtown Los Angeles, she faced deportation.
I got involved in trying to get my mother properly registered so this seriously ill Parkinson’s disease patient would not be deported before she died. I visited the INS office, properly neck-tied and suited, assuming this could all be quickly cleared up by my obtaining some forms my frail mother could sign at home.
I was told firmly that my mother’s personal appearance was required for a meeting with a hearing officer. I left the Los Angeles federal building, looked at that long line snaking around the block — everyone was told to show up at 8 a.m. and waited for hours to be seen — and proceeded to procrastinate about the entire matter.
Then came the morning when I opened a particularly nasty letter from the INS, followed within days by a phone call from an INS official. I told the guy my bedridden mother was too weak to go through the downtown drill and asked if something else could be worked out. He said no and brought up the prospect of deportation. I asked him just what country he intended to deport her to and he said, “Her country of origin.”
I knew I had him. I pointed out that it would be difficult to explain to his boss, President Ronald Reagan, why he was deporting one of the first Jewish refugees from Communist Russia back to the Evil Empire. I told him he would have to come and get her.
I never heard from the INS again. Evidently someone decided to grant her amnesty, and that’s what I want for all of the mothers and their kin whom I watched in Monday’s march.
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