Friday, August 13, 2010

My granddad, the "anchor baby"

My grandfather loved to tell stories. It's one of the things I remember best and most fondly about him, and it's a trait I seem to have inherited. Whether you had heard the story before or not, he often delighted in telling us about the time he watched the Hindenburg fly over New York City on its fateful journey to Lakehurst, or used a borrowed limousine and his tan complexion to masquerade as a Saudi prince at Manhattan's exclusive nightclubs, or once answered the phone "Yankee Stadium, third base," only to learn the person on the other end was Admiral Chester Nimitz. I don't know how much was true and how much was exaggerated, but I do know he lived an extraordinary life and that he loved sharing it with his family.

Ernie Stevens,
notorious "anchor
It's funny, though. Of the dozens of Granddad's stories I must have heard hundreds of times, he never told me the one about being a terrorist plant bent on destroying America from within. Obviously that's because such a concept is completely absurd -- my grandfather was born in Pennsylvania, served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, married a farm girl from Kansas and became a successful accountant for major U.S. corporations. But though he voted Republican all his life (one of the only disagreements he and I ever had was over FDR), many on the right now believe my grandfather was somehow a dangerous individual who didn't even deserve American citizenship.

You see, though he probably never heard the term in his life, my grandfather was an "anchor baby." Born in America to non-U.S. citizens in 1921, the Fourteenth Amendment granted him birthright citizenship in the U.S. rather than forcing him to take the nationality of his parents. Now, however, Republican leaders like sens. Glenn McConnell, John Kyl and South Carolina's own Lindsey Graham (with Fox News' predictable support/guidance) are actually trying to change the Constitution to eliminate the clause which allowed my grandfather to be an American.

The Philadelphia, which carried
Candido Stefanelli to America
My great-grandfather, Candido Stefanelli, came to the United States in the winter of 1912 wanting a life better than could be found in the small villages of the Italian Alps. He was herded through the teeming immigrant intake center of Ellis Island at age 18 (he didn't even speak English yet), and eventually found a job helping to dig the New York subway tunnels. By the time World War I was over he had married my great-grandmother, and soon fathered three children including my grandfather, Ernesto Raymonde Stefanelli.

There's one other thing about my great-grandmother, who also lacked U.S. citizenship -- she was actually born in America. Descended from Minutemen at the battles of Lexington and Concord, to be exact. But in 1907, Congress passed a law expatriating anyone who married a non-citizen and forcing them to adopt their spouse's nationality. So when Lora Mae Blodgett married Candido Stefanelli, my American great-grandmother became my Italian great-grandmother. Kinda funny, some of the things they leave out of Schoolhouse Rock.

After World War I, growing anti-Italianism in the U.S. convinced my great-grandfather to "Americanize" the family, and Ernesto Stefanelli came home from school one day to learn his name had been legally changed to Ernest Stevens. Candido, likewise, had become Charles. But even though my grandfather was born to two Italians (technically, anyway), thankfully the Fourteenth Amendment allowed him to be an American no matter what his name was. He later showed his gratitude to his country by joining the Army Air Corps in World War II, while his older brother joined the Navy and became an aide to Admiral Nimitz, who sometimes called their house in New York City -- yep, the "Yankee Stadium" story is actually true.

The Repatriation Act of 1936 allowed my great-grandmother to regain her American citizenship, but she didn't seek it until nearly two decades later. Perhaps having her own nationality revoked for such a minor infraction as marriage was somewhat disenchanting -- can you blame her? My great-grandfather, who spent much of his life in the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the soon-to-be-subway tunnels of Manhattan, eventually died of the black lung disease. His children and grandchildren rode those same subways to work and school each day, fully aware of the prices that had been paid for the opportunities Charles Stevens was able to pass on to his family.

Looking back, it's hard to believe such draconian immigration laws ever existed in this country, which for centuries has been said to proudly welcome and embrace the world's tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But beneath the veneer of the "great American melting pot" lies an ugly, deep-seated layer of intolerance toward foreign races and cultures shared by many. These days it's hard to tell who some on the right dislike more, Hispanics or Muslims. From near-genocide of the Native Americans to the enslavement of millions of Africans, to the anti-Irish/Italian riots and forcible internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II, a sizable portion of this country has consistently displayed intolerant attitudes toward cultural and ethnic minorities since America's very founding -- views which are often conveniently downplayed in the history books.

With that in mind, it's nevertheless astounding that leaders of the Republican Party, a group which touts on its own website that they passed the Fourteenth Amendment over Democratic objections, now want to revoke birthright citizenship. Even though my family still displays the folded American flag given to us by the Army when my grandfather died, Republicans don't think he should have been an American to begin with, simply because of who his parents were. Does that sound like the values my ancestors fought for at Lexington and Concord, or that my grandfather helped protect during World War II?

Lindsey Graham, who first proposed eliminating the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause, has recently backed off somewhat by claiming he only wanted to put all options on the table for immigration negotiations. The fact that such an influential Republican would casually suggest revoking the constitutionally-afforded and -protected birthrights of millions of Americans is appalling enough. The fact that he would do so as a bargaining chip aimed at shifting the immigration Overton window (not to mention improving his standing with the far right) is simply disgraceful.

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