President Trump wants to get rid of "chain migration."
My paternal grandfather sure was glad that "chain migration" was in place in the 1910s. So am I.
"Chain migration" allows close family members of previous immigrants preference to come into the United States. Trump and Republicans want to replace it with emphasis on job skills and desirable attributes rather than family relationships.
Grandpa Joe Bonavita immigrated into the United States sometime before World War I, as I remember the story. I don't have documents, so the precise year is hazy.
His brother Tom had immigrated earlier. Tom worked driving spikes through railroad tracks and into wooden crossties as the Pennsylvania Railroad snaked northwest from Harrisburg toward Erie. In Warren, 60 miles east of Lake Erie, Tom found a job at the Struthers-Wells steel fabricating plant, sent for his family, and settled down.
Grandpa Joe found brutal work in underground coal mines in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. The story goes that his wife died, leaving him with two daughters, and he sent back to the "Old Country" for a new wife. His relatives sent him Philomena Fico, whom he dimly remembered as a younger girl in his town of Petilia Policastro, province of Crotone, region of Calabria.
In the 1920s, disaster struck.
Grandpa was slammed against the mine wall by a chain of breakaway handcars loaded with coal. The steel push handle sticking out from the side of the car ripped through his back, breaking his spine and severing muscles.
It was two or three days before he even saw a doctor.
When his back healed, he could no longer stand upright. He was bent at the waist at a 90-degree angle, though he could prop himself upright by leaning on a chair, a sofa arm or his wife. I have a photo of Grandpa proudly standing almost upright while short, stout Grandma leans into him to disguise his handicap.
No Social Security. No disability. No pension. Nothing.
And mouths to feed. Probably five or six children by that time. Starvation loomed.
"Come to Warren," said Tom, his brother.
Tom got Grandpa a job as a janitor at Struthers-Wells. This next statement is politically incorrect, but it is accurate: Grandpa was ideally suited to the job, because he was already bent down toward the floor. He could push the broom neatly, sweeping up the curly shavings from the chipped-out steel along with the dust from coal and dirt.
For the rest of his life, Grandpa was grateful to Struthers-Wells for having given him the job. When Dad and his brothers, still at home in their 20s during the Depression of the 1930s, partied heavily and moaned against getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to work at that same plant, Grandpa would turn their mattresses over, dumping them onto the floor.
Struthers "gave me a job when we were starving," he would say. "You will not disgrace our name by not showing up for work."
Grandma and Grandpa were happily married for a half-century or so. As a pre-teen, I practically lived with them and their son Frank in the house they shared. That house was located just across the street from Struthers-Wells, banging forging hammers, squealing cranes and all. It was a block away from the house where Uncle Tom's widow and their children, my cousins, still lived when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s.
That was the "chain migration" we still have today: Families helping families. If it had not been for Uncle Tom, I and other grandchildren probably would not have been born.
Now, "chain migration" is not perfect, or holy. I do not think that close relatives should get automatic admission. Actually, they do not. Convicted criminals and other undesirables are regularly denied.
I do see the desirability of the mutual support framework that "chain migration" allows. In instances where there are quotas from specific countries, I don't have a problem with giving preference to immigrants with clearly desirable job skills — but that is "preference," not "requirement."
On my family tree's other branch is the story that my maternal grandfather was a stowaway on a freighter, an illegal immigrant freeing a death warrant issued by the Mafia of that time, Again, I have no documentation, but I heard the story over and over. He lived with family until, eventually, he proudly became a naturalized citizen. Again, "chain migration."
We ought to keep "chain migration" as a policy, in my view. Modify it? Sure. Stress the desirability of skilled immigrants to the United States economy? Yep.
But family ties are powerful ties. Immigrants of this and previous generations coalesced around families, then around common-country communities, then gradually flowed out into the mainstream.
So let's not get rid altogether of "chain migration." It has served us well.
Denny Bonavita, a former editor and publisher at newspapers in western Pennsylvania, winters in Apalachicola. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org