For My Grandparents in the Train Station: An immigration story

I worry about my landscapers. Once a week, a white flatbed truck pulls up on our street, delivering riding mowers, grass trimmers, short Hispanic men and one white guy, the obvious boss. They spill from the truck like bees, everyone in a hurry. At different seasons they come armed with gas-powered leaf blowers, jugs of liquid fertilizer strapped over a shoulder, or shovels and rakes to tackle the piles of mulch in the parking lot.

I pay our homeowners’ association a monthly fee for this service, wondering what they are spraying from the bottles and why we need signs that say “Spraying in Progress” at the ends of the street. But mostly I have a bigger worry. I wonder if they are undocumented, if they have families here or in another country.

A local human rights activist gave me two lists in Spanish: What to Do In an Emergency (when you have to leave home in a hurry) and Know Your Rights (when ICE comes to your door) with a phone number for free legal advice. I make copies and take them home.     

One day I’m out walking and decide to try something. I look around for the white boss but he’s way down the street. I see a lone guy spreading mulch.

“Hola!”

“Habla?” He looks up, smiling?

 “No,” I say with a shake of my head and a rueful smile. He looks puzzled. What does he see? A gringo lady making fun of him?

Almost all my neighbors are white. Some of them care about the ICE raids, the deportations, the family separation. The kids in cages, sleeping on the floor in silver blankets. We have talked about it.

My country was unprepared for so many refugees and I fear we have lost our heart. We have tax breaks for the wealthy but not enough room for those willing to work. My busy landscapers look at me with wary eyes. Was it always like this?  

Over one hundred years ago, my grandfather’s family traveled over land from Poland to Germany, crossed the ocean, then boarded a train in New York City to finally alight at a station in Amsterdam, New York. They came so far because they heard about jobs in the rug factories, the broom and the glove factories, lots of jobs needing workers. They were so poor and oppressed back home that they left loved ones, knowing they were unlikely to ever see them again.

They sat all day in the train station, hot and tired, with no idea what to do next. They spoke no English.  In the evening, men who spoke Polish came down to the station and led them, on foot, to “flats” for rent. They took them to the factories and introduced them to bosses who taught them jobs. They were needed, if not necessarily welcomed.

We don’t need migrants in 21st century America. Our factories are closed. I understand the fears of the underemployed. I remember the layoffs when my parents worried about paying the mortgage and we lost our car and had to walk everywhere. I understand the fear that there is not enough to go around. But I don’t believe it. And I just don’t believe the latest refugees from crime and poverty are here to rip me off.

I look up what I want to say, and memorize a sentence:

“No hablo espanol, pero quiero darte esta.”(I don’t know Spanish but I want to give you this.)

My heart pounds when I go outside, hold out my two paper lists and say my sentence to the man trimming my shrubs. He looks at them and nods.

“Gracias,” he says, shoves them in his pocket and goes on working.

That’s my immigrant story. What’s yours?
 

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