DACA Dad: What If…?

DACA Dad: What If…?

My father did not become a citizen until he was an adult. He fled the Russian pogroms to create a better life. Gratitude can shape some pretty good citizens.

My sister is now an activist and works for the rights of immigrants. I am so proud of her. I did most of my activism during the 1960s and 1970s, although I do sign many petitions and support special candidates and causes. We were on the phone chatting last week, when she said something that really made me sad.

When I researched our father’s papers for Myopia, a memoir, it was the first time I realized that my father did not become a citizen until he was an adult. What the reason could be for this is only speculation. I am sure that they were too busy surviving to consider this issue. They had no money and could speak very little English.

My sister thinks he was in his twenties, but I somehow remember him doing this just before he married my mother, which would have made him in his early thirties. The mass collection of these materials is in several large cartons, and I have not as of yet looked back to get the exact date. But it did give me pause and brought tears to my eyes.

Fear of discovery and deportation

What if my father would have been classified as DACA, if he had been the age he was back then now? It is hard to imagine the anxiety he would have had. He was always afraid of being discovered, found out, deported, sent back to Russia. The Cossacks were always just behind him, and they were always coming. This kind of fear can only be felt by someone who has had the experience. People say, “Well, he was just a small boy. How could that have been an impact on his whole life? Read Freud. Read Winnicott. Read Melanie Klein. Read the memoirs of the survivors of any pogrom or holocaust, any survivor of ethnic cleansing. Look at the faces of the terrified children running from Syria or Yemen, the frozen expressions on the children of Rohingya Muslims’. Fears are implanted in the very young and can influence the rest of their lives.

The author's father in his nineties.

The author’s father in his nineties.

My father struggled through medical school. He did not find studying either fun or easy. I think there were many times that he doubted he would ever make it through to become a doctor, an M.D., and so he first became an osteopath. He went on to become a specialist and a surgeon, but they were long and difficult years. If he had had DACA hanging over his head, I question whether or not he could have overcome that anxiety. Of course, this is only speculation, but he did not handle anxiety well. When his father died, he suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown. His brother Larry was in law school at the time. He had to drop out to support his younger brother and sisters. He never went back to school, and my father felt guilty for the rest of his life. He would always talk about how smart his brother was and what a shame it was that he didn’t accomplish more.

Life is filled with what ifs. We can all look back and ask at some point, what if I had done this instead of that? My Uncle Larry often seemed cold, indifferent, tired of life. But when push came to shove, he sacrificed for his family. This sacrifice made him a bitter and angry man. My father’s guilt made him a fearful, angry and defensive man. They trekked across the same land, hid in the same hay wagon, survived jail in Germany and arrived on the same boat to get to the United States. And both of these brothers passed their fears and anger on to the next generation. We had to work very hard to shed them. Not all of us were successful.

Creating a better life

I worry about the young immigrants, hungry and slogging through the mud, in order to create better lives for themselves. What kind of life would my father have had in Russia, a country never kind to or even tolerant of the Jews? My father was an illegal refugee smuggled out by his mother, like so many children who could be deported today. He might never have fulfilled his dreams in life. He might not have had any.

My father never cheated on his taxes and was proud, if not happy, to pay them. He continued to donate to institutions of higher learning that had benefitted him and his family and contributed to his place of worship and to Israel his whole life. And he accepted firewood and fish as payment from the poorest of the immigrant Portuguese fisherman who became his patients. He knew something of their struggles.

When I did my father’s bookkeeping for him in high school, I could not believe the money he was owed. Now, my father was not always a very reasonable man, but in his heart, he was a good man and a good citizen. He could not help his fears. He did not believe, as I do, in psychoanalysis. When I think he could have been deported, I shudder for him. This might have ruined his life. He could have made no contribution to this country, his community, the family he raised. He probably would not have survived, and I would not be sitting here to write this blog.

I am so proud of my sister, volunteering, marching, holding meetings in her lovely home, and remembering from whence she came. At one time or another, our ancestors all came over on a boat from somewhere. Before we begin to throw out folks just trying to do the same, we’d better think about the quality of our future. Gratitude can make some pretty good citizens. My father was one of them.

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