A columnist's American story
© by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, August 14, 2014


“Today, over 100 million Americans — about one-third of the population — can trace their ancestry to the immigrants who first arrived in America at Ellis Island before dispersing to points all over the country.” — Wikipedia

I am one of those 100 million Americans. My paternal grandparents came here from Croatia, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; my maternal grandparents were descended from earlier Irish and German immigrants.

I’d always been taught that immigrants were processed at Ellis Island. So, I was startled when I heard some people say, during the current debate about illegal immigration, that most early immigrants also entered the country illegally, wherever they could get ashore, that Ellis Island was open for only a few years. That didn’t sound right, and it wasn’t.

In reality, more than 70 percent of all immigrants entered through New York City: initially, at the Castle Garden depot near the tip of Manhattan, then at the new detention center at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. (Those coming from Asia were processed in San Francisco.)

And, relevant to the current discussion, you should know what Wikipedia tells us:

“Generally, those immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours at Ellis Island. Arrivals were asked 29 questions including name, occupation, and the amount of money carried. It was important to the American government that the new arrivals could support themselves and have money to get started. The average the government wanted the immigrants to have was between 18 and 25 dollars. Those with visible health problems or diseases were sent home or held in the island’s hospital facilities for long periods of time. More than three thousand would-be immigrants died on Ellis Island while being held in the hospital facilities. Some unskilled workers were rejected because they were considered “likely to become a public charge.” About 2 percent were denied admission to the U.S. and sent back to their countries of origin for reasons such as having a chronic contagious disease, criminal background, or insanity.”

So, most of us are descended from the best: those courageous enough to leave familiar countries and customs, relatively healthy risk-takers who had some skills to offer their new home. The Library of Congress notes that “Fleeing crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes, and famine, many came to the U.S. because it was perceived as the land of economic opportunity. Others came seeking personal freedom or relief from political and religious persecution. With hope for a brighter future, nearly 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900.”


Barbara's Croation-American grandfather was a policeman until he arrested the mayor.

Now we’re told that roughly 12 million were living illegally in the U.S. in 2007, and we know it’s many more today. Our country used to limit the flow so that new citizens could have time to assimilate before another group joined them; now there is no processing, just an open invitation for even more to come, regardless of job skills, health and planned assimilation.

I was named for my two grandmothers, one German, one Croatian. The former was born in Pennsylvania; her mother was born in Bavaria. A cousin tells me that our German great-grandfather was a carpenter who built homes for his two daughters a block apart in my hometown of St. Marys, which had been founded by German immigrants in 1842. My mother grew up in one of the houses with her four sisters.

Their great-great grandmother’s family had emigrated to Ireland from France in the 12th century. She emigrated to St. Marys in 1884. Other family members emigrated to Bergen, N.Y., apparently having passed the tests at Ellis Island.

Like many Irish, they worked on the railroad. My granddad, who married Barbara and inherited the house, was train master for the Shawmut Line. They lived a comfortable middle-class life.


Barbara's Croatian-American grandfather, with his two first-generation children, her father Max on the right.

My Croatian grandfather, age 15, emigrated in 1907, the peak year of European immigration. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States, according to Wikipedia. I’ve been told that his father lived in America, returned to Croatia and sent his son here from their farming community near the Slovenian border. From what he told us, he didn’t fill one of the above requirements, having only 18 cents in his pocket when he arrived, but his size must have caught the attention of those who were seeking strong peasants for jobs in the Pittsburgh steel mills.

He was naturalized in 1924; he eventually settled in St. Marys, part of a small community of Slavic peoples. In my hometown, the three ethnic groups shared a Catholic heritage and seemed to get along well enough for his first-generation son to marry my Irish-German-American mother; they lived happily-ever-after, going dancing every Saturday night.

My grandmother Barbara, however, died young during the Spanish flu epidemic. Grandpa was a policeman when I was born, until he arrested the town’s mayor for public drunkenness, after which he was fired, a family story that I’m sure helped create my own political views. Gramps didn’t mind; he went to work as a security officer on the Erie docks and eventually returned to St. Marys to run Big Mox’s, his second wife’s family pub, which I remember he seemed to enjoy.

He spoke excellent English and was a leader in the Slavic community; he paid for my two years of college, and when he died, he left enough money for my dad to realize his dream of owning a small hardware store. And this, my friends, is the American immigrant experience in a nutshell.

Grandpa’s two brothers emigrated to Canada, perhaps during the period that Slavs weren’t allowed to enter the U.S. His niece Zorah later escaped from what had become communist Yugoslavia; Grandpa went to New York City to get her. I was old enough then that I remember the stories she told us about living under communism — another influence on my present worldview.

I am grateful that my direct Irish family survived the potato famine, that the Germans weren’t still in Bavaria when Hitler came to power, that Grandpa left Croatia before Tito became dictator. Gramps told me that they’d fought as boys in the schoolyard, and this was one reason he wasn’t going back for a visit to his village.

Thank you, America, for accepting my legal immigrant family.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle-Tribune newspapers.

More of Barbara's Columns

Citizens for Limited Taxation    PO Box 1147    Marblehead, MA 01945    508-915-3665