When my grandfather was alive, he would sometimes travel across the country from Connecticut to visit me when I lived in California. On one of those occasions I noticed that he’d brought his passport with him.
“You don’t need to carry a passport when you’re traveling in the United States,” I told him. “It’s America, and you don’t need that here."
A Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust by escaping into the Soviet Union, and then evaded Stalin’s grip by fleeing to the relative safety of a displaced person’s camp in occupied Germany after the war, my grandfather’s expression turned grave.
“I never leave home without my papers,” he said, his voice a whisper as if the SS or KGB were listening.
Nothing I said after that could convince him to leave his U.S. passport — the one that he could use to prove his acquired American citizenship — at home. A vestige of the traumatic past he’d endured, I finally realized that entrenched habits are hard to break.
And now, I think maybe he was right after all.
My problem is that I’m an immigrant, too. My mother, my grandfather’s daughter, gave birth to me in a Munich displaced person's camp while she and my father waited for clearance to emigrate to the United States. We finally arrived in New York City in October 1951. I was an 11-month-old refugee. My other problem is the current economy and the fact that my job is in Missouri and my wife’s is in Arizona. I go there about once a month, and with its new “toughest immigration law” in the United States, I must decide whether or not to bring my passport.
The new statute essentially gives Arizona law enforcement officers Gestapo-like powers that they can exercise whenever they have a “reasonable suspicion … that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” At that point, they must make a “reasonable attempt” to determine a person’s immigration status.
There are only two ways for me to prove that I have a right to be here. My naturalization certificate, the one I acquired at age 16, now sits in my safe deposit box acorn brown and brittle with age. Its photo no longer remotely resembles me, and the glue that once held it in place has long since dried and cracked, so the picture floats aimlessly between the folds of the paper.
Then there is my U.S. passport. It seems like such a little thing to carry it, to simply place it in the car’s glove compartment along with the auto registration certificate and the proof of insurance so that I can show it to some police officer who thinks he better ask a “white guy” about his citizenship to avoid claims of racial profiling.
But it’s not that easy. I am so profoundly grateful for America’s embrace, the one that Emma Lazarus described as coming from lady liberty’s lips:
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… ”
What this country gave to me, the embodiment of “wretched refuse” from a “teeming shore,” was the opportunity to convert unfettered freedom into a life constructed from my own sense of destiny. And what Arizona is about to take away in more than a symbolic way is the sense that I can exist here without the intrusion of police who can force me to show my papers on a mere whim.
Though I recognize that immigration enforcement is a serious issue that requires decent solutions, those can’t come at my expense or that of millions of others who also sought refuge in a compassionate and caring country. Forty percent of Americans, after all, can trace their roots back to an immigrant who passed through the gates of Ellis Island alone.
What Arizona’s governor Jan Brewer’s signature did on this Senate bill was transform America into a more sinister, repressive place. “She really felt that the majority of Arizonans fall on the side of, ‘Let’s solve the problem and not worry about the Constitution’,” Grant Woods, the former state attorney general who advised Brewer not to sign the law, told The New York Times.
But I’ve decided not to succumb to the fear, to the authoritarian and oppressive law that will gradually erode our democracy and substitute the type of existence that haunted my grandfather until the day he died.
To paraphrase the oft-quoted movie line: “Passports… I don’t have to show you any stinking passports.”
Michael Jonathan Grinfeld is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and a co-director of MU’s Center for the Study of Conflict, Law and the Media.