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COMMENTARY: Honor our ancestors with better immigration policies

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Immigration asylum

In this July 17, 2019, file photo, a United States Customs and Border Protection Officer checks the documents of migrants before being taken to apply for asylum in the United States, on International Bridge 1 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

The Day of the Dead (Nov. 2) has me thinking about how to honor my Mexican grandparents who moved to Mason City 100 years ago. María Guadalupe Herrera Granado (Lupe) and José Ángel Alfaro left an isolated rancho in Los Altos de Jalisco, carrying their infant son Jesús. Their story is utterly unremarkable, except that it differs so dramatically from what immigrants can expect today.

This humble family of pious name – Jesús, Joseph, and Mary – were part of an enormous exodus. Historians estimate that nearly a million people – almost 10 percent of the Mexican population – headed north between 1910-1930. They were the illiterate, hungry refugees of the Mexican Revolution, mostly from the states of Jalisco, Guanajuato and Michoacan.

Every migrant has a personal reason to leave home. As the eighth of eighteen children, José knew there was no land or work for him in Los Altos. He had been to the United States before and he liked the wages. Lupe’s prospects were worse. Two of her siblings had succumbed to smallpox. Her father died when she was 10. She married at age 14, to a man who left for the U.S. and never returned. Her beloved 17-year-old brother was killed by gunfire while she was pregnant with Jesús. José offered her an escape from the grief and shame.

José and Lupe traveled north by train, courtesy of a recruiter for Chicago and North Western Railroad who offered a job and free passage. They crossed the border at Laredo just a few days before Christmas. Mexicans were welcomed then, no need for visas or passports, just a name typed on an index card. They replaced the Chinese and southern Europeans excluded by earlier waves of anti-immigration laws. Besides, Mexicans helped to keep wages low during the postwar depression.

Unlike the many Mexicans who settled in Texas or California, José was drawn to Iowa. He wasn’t alone. By 1925, Cerro Gordo county had 455 Mexicans, more than any other Iowa county. José worked first for the railroad, then at the Lehigh cement plant. The family lived on Lehigh Row alongside Italian, Greek and Czech neighbors. As Lupe raised their seven children, the family spent harvest season picking sugar beets and onions at the Kennedy farm. My abuelos never learned to read or write, but their children became teachers, electricians and a decorated World War II veteran.

Today, someone else’s relatives are leaving home for the north. They may be fleeing the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, which has killed thousands of civilians. Or they may simply have tired of washing dishes in Guadalajara. Perhaps they were displaced by drought, or a high-end tequila distillery.

What awaits them on their journey? Some are apprehended at the border only to languish in a Laredo detention center. Others send their children over the border alone, in a desperate attempt to give them a better chance. Many are forced to remain in Mexico, where they hope in vain for a favorable asylum ruling. Perhaps we can honor the dead, in this land of immigrants, by rejecting cruel policies and extending compassion to the living.  

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