THE BLOG
06/21/2010 03:03 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Reflections on Being a Child of an Illegal Immigrant

After Daddy's death it took me a while before I could even stroll down the aisle of Father's Day greeting cards in Walgreen's. It has been ten years since he died at 78 years old, but the lump still forms in my throat when I think of my Dad. His death was what oncology social workers call a "good death." There were many good conversations with me sitting at his bedside during his long illness. During that time, he was visited by friends from every chapter of his life and he had time to say lots of good byes. He told me he loved me the day before he no longer had a voice and slipped into a coma. My mom, sisters and brother, cousins, play sisters, play cousins, his god children, co-workers, neighbors, and friends kept daily vigils, never once leaving him alone. Fr. Mike, our family friend and pastor, led us in prayer and guided our spirits as we dug deep into our faith to make meaning of the last stages of his life. We re-read and shared passages from Tuesdays with Morrie. We hugged, we laughed, we cried. And we gave thanks for the wonderfully lived, generous life that was my Dad's.

I grew up the daughter of an illegal immigrant. My Dad, born in Jamaica, arrived in Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Cuba. I have never gotten a straight answer as to why he was in Cuba -- except that it made it easier for him to get to the States. Growing up, my parents were always reluctant to share Daddy's history with us loquacious kids for fear that we might speak openly about his immigration story at school or to families in the neighborhood. It was not until I was an adult that I found out that Daddy had "no papers." It gave new meaning to the threat my mom regularly flung at him during an argument -- "I'll have your ___ deported so fast..."

I thought it strange that my Dad, a lover of history, never talked about his own. Our lived heritage was my Mom's Panamanian roots. We ate rice and beans, plantain, and arroz con polo as our standard meals. Growing up in inner city Cleveland with Spanish being my mom's first language, I went to school speaking Spanglish with Ebonics. Daddy, however, for all practical purposes, embraced a global identity. He made us stop playing on summer evenings and come inside to watch Time-Life slide shows from his little red slide projector, taking us to Paris and Greece and other exotic places. He would save to purchase these slide shows of various countries and his excitement on the day of the arrival in the mail was so magnetic that it made it worth coming in from a good game of hop scotch with the neighborhood kids to sit around the dining room table in the small air-conditionless house.

On Sundays, we returned home from Mass and my Dad made us sit in our good church clothes scrunched together on the couch to listen to his classical music records so that we could "get some culture." At other times, Jazz and Motown were regular background noise in the home. My sisters and I would giggle at the unique sounds of Mariam Makeba, the South African singer, whose albums my Dad cherished. When my sisters and I would make fun of the short afro worn by Makeba on the album cover my Dad would admonish us and tell us stories of Africa. His Black history mini-lectures at the mandatory-sit-down-and-eat dinner table taught us to be Black and proud long before it was fashionable.

My Dad's journey to the U.S. was through a string of friendships. Eager to make a better life for my Mom and my older sister, then just a toddler in Panama, he left for Cuba. As a hotel attendant he befriended an American woman, Clemmie Tatum, with whom he shared his desire to come to live in the U.S. and his wish to then be joined by my mom and sister after his arrival. Clemmie, through a lawyer friend, was able to get my Dad to the States. He was introduced to Max T. Davis, owner of Peerless Packing Company, a meat packing business. Daddy worked for Mr. Davis and his wife Arlene Davis, who had a long and distinguished career as a female pilot beginning in 1931. As their family butler, chauffeur, and "house man," he became like family. In 1950, Mr. & Mrs. Davis sponsored my Mom and sister Brenda to come to the U.S. to join my Dad. My sister Chris was born in November 1950; I was born in 1952; My sister Eloisa in 1953; Nancy in 1955 and Felicia in 1956 and my brother, Paul was adopted in 1964. With the exception of my brother, Paul, who lives in Sweden, we all live in the U.S. and are productive citizens.

He worked as a parking lot attendant for most of his working days. He had many odd jobs. He was a school janitor and worked in a factory when he retired at the age of 70. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and started many failed small businesses, from raising chinchillas to picture framing. He read a lot. Books and magazines lined bookshelves made by his own hands. He attended 5:30AM daily Mass when we were kids. On Saturdays he would throw his pants over his pajamas so he could quickly get another hour of sleep when he returned home. He never owned a new car. As kids, we thought it was fun to ride around in Daddy's "Flintstones" car that had no floor boards in the back seat. He was a great provider despite his meager salary. When we needed a dime or a quarter for notebook paper or a school project, we would leave him a note on his nightstand before we went to bed and retrieve the coins left on top of the note when we got up. He always asked for the same thing for Christmas and his birthday -- peace and quiet.

After Reagan's Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, both my parents became U.S. citizens. My mother always held a green card but was never able to return to Panama even for her parent's funerals for she was afraid that she would "mess up my father." My sisters and I took off work on the day of their naturalization to accompany my parents to the courthouse. It was one of my Dad's proudest day in his life when he become a U.S. Citizen. After the naturalization ceremony, our family "welcomed" them to the U.S. with a celebration luncheon.

With these kind of memories, it is hard for me to be objective about issues of immigration reform. As Michelle Obama, said so simply and eloquently to the little girl who blurted out that her mom didn't have papers, "we have to fix that." It is time to fix it -- just as Reagan's Immigration Reform Act fixed it for my Dad. I could have been that little girl who blurted out that her Dad didn't have papers 50 years ago. When I read Michelle Price's June 15th's Huffpost, "Russell Pearce, Arizona State Senator, Plans Bill to End Birthright Citizenship for Children of Illegal Immigrants" it gave me cause to pause. I certainly would not have lived the life I have currently known. I may not have had a life as Debbie Plummer.

I know that conditions in this country have changed since 1946 when Daddy came to Cleveland, Ohio. I know that every illegal immigrant is not like my Dad or shares a similar story. Yet when questioned about how he managed to be in the States so long without getting caught, Daddy always said that someone told him he could be here a long time if he just worked very hard, paid his taxes and didn't get in trouble with the law. That formula worked for him. Perhaps that message holds the answer to the fix.