“The right to exclude or to expel all aliens, or any class of aliens, absolutely or upon certain conditions, in war or in peace, [is] an inherent and inalienable right of every sovereign and independent nation, essential to its safety, its independence and its welfare.” – Supreme Court of the United States, 1893
I come home from school late at night and hurry up the stairs to where my mother is with wet hair, in her bathrobe, brushing her teeth. “Mama, where’s the letter from the Queen of Spain?” I ask. My mom looks at my quizzically. When I explain further, she replies with a tut-tut. “It wasn’t the Queen, the Princess,” she says.
She doesn’t know where the letter is or she knows but gives the usual answer, “A box somewhere.” I make her sit down on the couch. I ask her to tell me the stories again. “What does the letter say?”
My grandmother, Mamie, was born a Protestant in Switzerland and orphaned young. Taken in by a Catholic family, they converted her and sent her to school. She became the best in her class for what girls learned at the time: childcare. I asked my mother, when I was younger, if Mamie was a governess because I’d watched the Sound of Music so many times that I imagined Mamie was Julie Andrews. “Not governess, puéricultrice,” my mother said. She was most frustrated by the limitations of translation when I asked what “puéricultrice” meant. To her, the word had no translation. To me, it only sounds beautiful and important in French, when my mother says it with pride and reverence. The father has roughly translated it to, “A baby nurse.” Now, I try to remember to simply say, “puéricultrice,” knowing no one will know how important that word is to my mother.
The real point is that Mamie, an orphaned Swiss girl, traveled the world caring for the children of the world’s elite: Dukes and Duchesses, Kings and Princesses. She went to Madagascar, France, Egypt, and Italy. Mamie said to my father in the 1970’s, “That was my bedroom,” as they walked through the Château Vaux le Vicomte. My father today laughs so heartily at the memory, “Vaux le Vicomte!” he says. “Can you imagine?” Her calm humility still feels palpable in the memory when he tells me the story.
A princess wrote her a Christmas card. She said, “The children are doing well, Lena.” Mamie worked for the Spanish royal family, in exile in Italy, until she met my grandfather, a striking Swiss Guard, and married him, and the Pope signed their marriage certificate.
My grandfather, Papie, guarded the Pope for ten years before he met her. Before that, he was twelve-years-old in a small mountain village in Switzerland with thirteen siblings. He was twelve-years-old and his family was saying, “We can’t feed you anymore; you need to work.” At twelve, he began to work, which means he mostly spent long months alone in the heights of the Alps, tending cows. He had no education after age twelve, but he found his way to the Vatican, eventually, and joined the Swiss Guard.
In the Vatican, he stayed. For ten years, my grandfather lived there, taking his lunch breaks in the park. Mamie also went to the park, there in Rome with the exiled royal family, watching the children. My father likes to tell the story this way: “The nurses went to the park to watch the children and the Swiss Guard went to watch the nurses.”
The president asks, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
I know he’s not talking about Switzerland, even though Papie didn’t have an education and Mamie was a nurse. Pardon, puéricultrice. Papie thought that his children would have it better over here, so they came, eventually and in groups. Papie came first. Then, a year later, he sent for Mamie and the children. They came to Queens. To Woodside. My mother didn’t want to leave Switzerland. The day I began to understand her was the day that she told me that she refused to go up to see the Statue of Liberty as their boat passed because she was twelve and missed home. A silent protest. She didn’t believe in America. Most days, I don’t either.
I am in immigration class on Wednesday nights listening to all the ways we can keep people out. Last weekend, I was running along the beach with a friend in south Florida, as the sun rose, and she asked me if I believe in open borders. Or she qualified the sentence this way: “I don’t know if you believe in open borders…” before she launched into a story about an Iraqi detainee she met last week. She’s a social worker-law student, too. She laughs as she tells me that she got the detainee to tell her his life story in only two days and her legal supervisor, shocked, asked her, “How did you get him to talk?” She says, “Lawyers have such a hard time holding space.” We feel the relief in relating to each other. We talk about holding space. The trauma begins to speak. “Oh my god,” my friend says. “It’s like an earthquake sitting across from you.” He begins to open up and tell her the truth. “Don’t tell anyone,” he begs, and he cries. The horrors run deep and probably won’t save him from deportation. I now know the elements for asylum, withholding of removal, refuge under the torture convention, and none of them are generous. I don’t believe in open borders, but I think I believe in something kinder than what we have.
I believe what people are afraid of when they talk about immigrants is their sheer strength. The immigrants they’re afraid of are those like my grandparents: the royalty of the world’s working class (those who will inhale the dust and scrub the floors). The royalty of the uneducated (those who dreamed their children could have one). They’re most afraid of the strongest ones: the royalty of trauma and war (those who fought for their lives and survived). The royalty who have nothing to lose. If they weren’t powerful, no one would be afraid of them.
A lawyer is giving a speech during an awards ceremony in January, and it feels familiar, the thank you’s and accolades. But as she closes, she says, “I want to say something… our president said this week something about people from certain countries, and my family is from Haiti…” A sharp collective inhale and deep murmur rustles through the room. This is a fancy law luncheon, and she said something. She brought up an issue. She continues, and she says, “Words matter. We’re lawyers. We know words matter.” She gains momentum, and she tells us a few things about people needing to remember humanity. I cannot remember now everything she said.
All I have are random thoughts, no conclusions, with a constant worry I should be doing my homework. I wish I could remember everything she said. I know my family is nothing like everyone I’m worried about today. Not Haitian. Not Iraqi. I try to hold space for everyone. I have the privilege of white skin and Swiss heritage. But I feel the burning connection to their same dreams. My grandparent’s dream. “Go to the U.S. … Uncle Ted lives there.” Chain migration. “The children will have it better.”
I am about to graduate with a second advanced degree, and I look at my mother with her own degrees. Hunter. Middlebury. I see the lawyer standing in front of the room at the awards luncheon with “shithole” burned on her arms, and she’s covering it with her degrees, too. I walk up to her afterward, and I say quietly, “Thank you. It needs to be said.” She pauses, momentarily, then looks proud. “Thank you,” she replies.
“‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me”
– Emma Lazarus, 1883