As we prepared to celebrate our country’s independence recently in the midst of the current immigration crisis and debate, I took the opportunity to reflect on my own family’s immigration stories.
Unlike many of my friends whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or fought in the Revolutionary War, I am a first generation American on our mother’s side and second generation on our father’s side.
On both sides of our family, the first stop in North America was Canada, later crossing to the United States. In 2006 I wrote about my grandmother’s arrival to Canada – Retracing My Grandmother’s Immigration at Canada’s Grosse Isle.
And, on July 6, 2007 I wrote about our grandfather, William Jonas Brodie, as a non-citizen soldier– Non-citizen Soldiers: Thoughts on the Fourth of July. I commented then that “like today’s immigrant soldiers, William Jonas was later granted citizenship and is buried with full Military Honors at the Veterans Administration Cemetery in Los Angeles.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 110,000 members of the Armed Forces have gained citizenship by serving in the U.S. military, according to the Defense Department (2018). This option is no longer a path to citizenship. According to a recent Associated Press report, “Some immigrant U.S. Army reservists and recruits who enlisted in the military with a promised path to citizenship are being abruptly discharged.”
In 1894 when our grandfather Brodie left Canada and settled in Chicago, there were no numerical limitations on immigration, no requirements to have an existing family or employment relationship with someone in the country, and no requirement to obtain a visa prior to arriving. According to the Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008, 1894 was during a period when immigration to the United States from Canada peaked. The Encyclopedia of Chicago discussed the integration of Canadians into the life of Chicago, “Chicago’s Anglophone Canadian population has left few traces that historians can discern. English-speaking Canadians did not face linguistic or social barriers preventing them from participating in English-speaking Chicago society and had little incentive to form separate ethnic schools or churches or to congregate in ethnic neighborhoods.” Chicago was booming at the end of the 19th century, and William Jonas and three of his siblings undoubtedly were looking for an opportunity for a better life.
His wife, our grandmother Clara Engler, emigrated from Germany, arriving at Ellis Island April 13, 1906. At Ellis Island Clara stated she was going to join her brother in Chicago, where at that time 25% of the population was of German descent.
Her brother, Frederich Franckenberg (who later changed his name to George Eckhart), was an engineer and emigrated in 1893. During the 1920’s, he and another engineer registered three different patents that were used in the automobile industry.
Negative feelings about specific groups of immigrants have occurred over and over in our country’s history. In the 1920’s, it was the Germans. While Grandmother Brodie would have an easy transition to America in Chicago, it was a different story when the family moved to Florida. Cousin Millie commented that her Dad told her that after World War I, prejudice against Germans in Florida was intense, and Clara worked very hard to erase her German accent. Uncle Bill remembered her “having only a subtle accent you had to listen to hear.”
I don’t know when she became naturalized, but in the 1930 census she was listed as a citizen.
In 1921 our Stage grandparents were living in the far north of Saskatchewan, Canada in a small in the small town of Outlook. Our grandmother had a medical condition and her doctor recommended she seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Since our grandfather was working nights, she took our Mom and uncle with her and the three of them stayed in a boarding house during her operation and recovery.
After arriving back in Outlook, our grandmother continued to have problems and returned to Rochester for more treatments. Her doctor told her that she would not be able to tolerate the extremely cold winters in Outlook, so she went back to Outlook and they sold their house. When they crossed the border to stay in Minnesota, our grandmother had orders from her doctor to move to a warmer climate and declared her intention to stay in the United States and this time rented a house.
A few months later the family moved to California where the weather would be better for Grandmother’s health.
Grandma Stage, always alert to opportunities for the family to better themselves, heard about growth in Florida and the family moved there in 1924. Our grandfather worked for a contractor building houses during the building boom.
By 1927 the building-boom bubble burst and the contractors our grandfather worked for shut down their businesses. Undeterred, they moved back to California. Life was good in Southern California, according to our Mom’s memoirs.
When the Great Depression started in 1929, our grandfather’s gas station
suffered and our grandparents decided to return to Canada – this time to Vancouver, B.C. Our Uncle liked his job, wanted to be with his friends, and decided to stay in Santa Monica.
When the family made the decision to move back to Canada, they were probably unaware of the Immigration Act of 1924, or the National Origins Act that went into effect in 1929, that might affect their ability to return. The Act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota that favored northern Europeans. The quota limited immigration visas to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States, according to the 1890 national census, and totally banned all Asians.
Even though Canada was also experiencing an economic depression, Grandpa Stage was able to buy a gas station not long after arriving in Vancouver.
Located next to the bridge that crossed Strait of Georgia to North Vancouver, the station and small store flourished until a ship took out the bridge in the dense fog in the early spring of 1930.
Not able to continue operating the gas station, they decided it was time to return to Southern California.
Even though they had lived and worked in the United States since 1922, our grandparents and mother were still British citizens which enabled our grandfather to receive his war injury benefits. All of a sudden, crossing the border was more challenging than it had been in 1922 when they first entered the United States. They were detained at the border and had to apply to enter the United States. The 1924 law required immigrants to present medical certificates to the U.S. consul in Vancouver and obtain a visa prior to arriving in the United States – in addition to waiting for immigration from the British Isles to open up. They were lucky being of northern European descent, but it still took almost six months. .
Our mother wrote in her photo album caption “on August 27, 1930, we left Vancouver and entered the United States ‘legally’ at Blaine, Washington.”
My family’s immigration story mirrors the myriad of others who have come to the United States to make a better life for themselves. Their stories, like those of many other immigrants, demonstrated resourcefulness and an entrepreneurial spirit born out their need to solve problems that other might not experience. I should not have been surprised to learn that, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “In the U.S., immigrants are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as native-born U.S. citizens. Immigrants represent 27.5% of the countries’ entrepreneurs but only around 13% of the population.”
It wasn’t until after she was married, that Mom applied for and became a citizen in 1941 – just prior to our Dad going to work for the Civil Aeronautics Administration. And, once a citizen, she took her responsibilities as a citizen seriously.
Even though I knew that my mother was a naturalized citizen, I always took my citizenship for granted. However, when I was a junior in college and studied and traveled in East Asia, I realized how lucky I was to be an American.
In 1968 when my oldest son was about 14 months old, my husband John quit his job and announced that he was going to take a summer school class in Calgary, Canada. His mother went with him. I stayed in San Bernardino, worked, and took care of our son.
I knew he was concerned about being drafted, but was surprised when towards the end of the summer school term, I got a letter – followed by a phone call, letting me know that he and his mother had looked into staying in Canada and applying for Canadian citizenship. “It would mean giving up our United States Citizenship,” he told me on the phone.
There was no hesitation. “I am not giving up my citizenship,” I replied – and John returned to San Bernardino. I was not going to relinquish something I valued, and that my family worked hard to achieve.
My family’s immigration stories have given me an appreciation of my past, as well as an appreciation for the struggles and drive of other immigrants.