I went to Ellis Island a few years ago, searching for the ship’s manifest bearing my grandparents’ names. I found the one for my grandfather, but my grandmother’s name wasn’t there.
I admit I searched for nearly an hour before I remembered: My grandmother immigrated to this country illegally.
I am, indeed, the granddaughter of an illegal immigrant. I am who I am and where I am because of her courage, strength and, yes, her dream.
Amelia Jwaszkiewich Michniewich left all that was familiar and dear behind, bundled her babies and her life, and set off across the ocean in search of something better. She did so on a passport not her own.
And from the moment she stepped out of steerage onto the fabled shores of Ellis Island until the night she died at an undetermined age, she feared that knock on the door, the uniformed men there, ready to send her back to Poland. As a child, I imagined a stern pounding at the kitchen door, a pair of jack-booted thugs on the other side.
An election year always heats up the immigration debate. This year, it prompted me to look back at my own family’s history, which was long before Secure Communities or the Dream Act.
My grandfather traveled here first, working, then returning to Poland to bring his growing family back across the Atlantic. They resettled in a small Vermont town, in a neighborhood bursting with other Poles.
My grandparents didn’t speak the language, eat the food or wear the clothing of their new neighbors. They were isolated and often scorned, not so different from the experiences of many immigrants today.
They raised six children to adulthood, five of whom had professional careers and raised children of their own who did the same, sometimes more.