Jun 26, 2017
By Christopher Kerosky
I am a resident of our own Sonoma County who, like many of us, works with immigrants. For the last 25 years, I have worked as an immigration lawyer, originally in San Francisco, and now in Santa Rosa. Currently, with a wave of anxiety gripping the immigrant community here, immigration lawyers are very busy; I consult with about 8-12 new immigrant families per day, about 1500 per year. Most of these are undocumented immigrants.
Starting this month, I will be writing a regular column about our own immigrant community. One of my goals will be to address certain common myths about immigrants. The other will be to share inspiring stories about our own County’s dynamic immigrants, young and old, and their contributions to Sonoma County.
In this first column, I’d like to share a short description of my own family’s immigrant story and contrast that with the experience of one of the immigrant families I know here in Sonoma County. It’s instructive as to what has remained constant about immigration, but what has changed about our treatment of immigrants in this country.
My grandparents, Antoni and Marysia Kryłowski(see photo above), were Polish immigrants. Our name was later changed to “Kerosky” when their children went to school and the American teachers didn’t know how to spell their name.
Antoni and Marysia both came from small villages in Southern Poland. My grandfather came from a poor family with many children. He had to drop out of school to help support his family. When he became an adult, there were no jobs available; there were little industry and limited opportunity. My grandmother also had no future in her little village. She was facing a life of poverty and since the country was dominated by the Russians, there was also violence and persecution from their more powerful neighbors.
So my grandfather and grandmother left their homes and their family, everything that was familiar and moved far away so that they could find jobs. It was not an easy move to make, but it was necessary for them to survive.
Antoni and Marysia didn’t have a visa when they came here. They had no “papers”. They were not formally invited. Like many others, before them and after them, Antoni and Marysia just came and we as a society accepted him. They needed work, we had jobs to fill here; they came and took on those jobs. America in the beginning of the 20th century needed their labor and welcomed them here, even if they came without a visa.
At that time, in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of jobs. There was a growing economy, opportunity, and a multi-ethnic community that accepted people who spoke broken English, or no English at all like Antoni and Marysia.
Antoni got a job in the coal mines. He and Marysia rented a small house from the coal company. Maria bore 8 children and did most of the childcare; Antoni worked long hours in the coal mines. They just got by financially but through hard work, they survived. They raised their children, made sure they got a good education, went to church every Sunday and lived a good moral life like most Americans.
My father, Thaddeus, or as his friends called him “Ted”, grew up in a poor family, but safe and secure, in a wonderful community, full of immigrants and their children, diverse and accepting of diversity. Ted attended school, served our country in the war, and even went to college for awhile.
Later, Ted got a job, he made a better life for himself than his parents had. He had US citizenship from the start of his life, he had the right to drive, to work, to go to college, and of course the right to live the rest of his life here.
Now, long after my grandfather’s death, Antoni has about 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, most of them college educated, most of them in professional jobs, contributing to our society and our economy. I was lucky enough to come from this type of immigrant story.
Now I’d like to tell you about a couple of my clients who live right here in Sonoma County. Let’s call them Antonio and Maria Carreno; that’s not their real names, but their story is true. And I want to tell you about not only their lives but how our government’s laws and policies have changed, and how those changes have affected them.
Antonio and Maria both came from villages in Michoacan, in Southern Mexico. Antonio came from a poor family with many children. He had to drop out of school to help support his family. When he became an adult, there were no jobs for him. There was little industry there and limited opportunity in Michoacan in the 1990’s (and that is still true today).
So Antonio and Maria left their home, their families, everything that was familiar and moved far away so that they could find jobs and feed their family. It was not an easy move to make, but it was necessary for them to survive.
At that time, in Sonoma County, there were a lot of jobs in the vineyards, in the farms, in our wonderful agricultural industry here. There was a growing economy, opportunity, a multi-ethnic community that accepted people who spoke broken English, or no English at all. He and Maria rented a small apartment. Maria nursed the children, Antonio works long hours in the fields; together they are raising their children.
Antonio and Maria didn’t have a visa when they came here. They had no “papers”. They were not formally invited. Like many others, before them and after them, Antoni and Marysia just came and, at first, we as a society accepted him. They needed work, we had jobs to fill here, and they gladly have done the work. Antonio and Maria work hard, pay their bills, pay their taxes, make sure their children do their best in school. On Sunday, they go to church, and they live a good moral life like most Americans.
Their son, Tomas grew up in a poor family, safe and secure, a wonderful community, full of immigrants and their children,diverse and accepting of diversity. Tomas attended grade school and high school here, and is now studying at Sonoma State. He has obeyed our laws and hopes to make something of his life.
However, unlike my father, Tomas does not have US citizenship or even legal permanent residence. Although he came here as an infant and spent virtually his whole life here, Tomas does not even have the right to be here. Tomas was unlucky enough to come from a different type of immigrant story than me.
Until recently, the lives of these two families were not really that different. Then, in the last 10 years or so, everything started to change. We as a nation decided that our immigrant workers were not welcome. In most states, we decided that they could no longer get a driver’s license. We decided that they could no longer get a social security card. And now, our federal government has decided that it should employ “deportation forces” (in the words of President Trump) to hunt down these immigrants for deportation, just simply for being here without a visa.
The fact is we’re not just building a wall to keep out future immigrants; we’re telling Mexicans and other immigrants that now they are no longer welcome. We are applying these new policies to persons who have been living here for decades, whose labor was needed and wanted when they came, and whose families are now integrated into our society, like Antonio, Maria and Tomas.
How did this happen? What is different about our attitude toward immigrants like Antonio and Maria from how we as a nation thought of Antoni and Marysia?
I would argue that the biggest reason for the new hostility toward immigrants is related to certain false myths about immigrants, prevalent in our society and perpetuated by the current Administration. In the months to come, I want to share with the readers some real facts about immigrants and immigration in this country, and try to dispel some of these myths, some of these “alternative facts” on the subject.
I hope you’ll read and share these with your friends. In any case, have a Happy Fourth of July, and please remember on this special day, that we are and we always have been a country of immigrants
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