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Lila Nordstrom Headshot

My Grandmother the Family Anchor ... Baby

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I have a confession to make. Lindsey Graham, close your ears. I don't have time to deal with being deported right now. I just need to get this off my chest:

My grandmother was an anchor baby.

Wait, before this goes any further, let me clarify. She was an anchor baby whose ancestors were among the first British settlers of the Americas. Our family's history in the Northeast stretches back to 1638, when an early ancestor arrived on ship called The Diligent and first set foot in Hingham, MA. 150 years later, our ancestors fought with the Patriots in the Revolutionary War. In return for their service they were given land in upstate New York, which they farmed until 1797, when the Wadsworth Brothers (18th century investment bankers), cheated them out of it. Soon after, our family took off for the great promised land of Canada.

100 years later, a young Canadian woman, my great-great-grandmother, met a young doctor on a boat to China, where both were traveling to do missionary work. They married on the ship and while in China, gave birth to twin daughters, one of whom was my great-grandmother and namesake, Lila. When the girls were three, the family was forced to leave during a major local rebellion, and they came to the United States. None were American citizens, and the twin girls, having been born in China and never having set foot in Canada, were entirely citizenship-free.

After spending most of her childhood in the Midwest, Lila met a nice young man, the son of Swiss immigrants, and gave birth to three girls. Somehow, in 1930s she was able to obtain a passport and travel to Europe despite lacking any official documentation. She also voted in every election. After World War II, she tried to renew her passport for a trip to Mexico, but was told that she would be unable to because, to her shock, she was not a citizen.

It was the worst possible time (aside from the present) to be applying for citizenship. Americans were finding almost everybody a suspicious potential Communist. Lila was amused by the whole thing, however, and traveled to Cleveland for the naturalization ceremony, realizing only afterwards that if she had just said that she was born in Kindred, OH like her husband, who also lacked a birth certificate, nobody would have asked any questions. Luckily, since her husband and children were all American-born and, thanks to the 14th Amendment, legal citizens, nobody gave her any trouble despite her lack of a legal status. Where else was she going to go?

Flash forward to the present, and countless families beginning their own American story are being questioned by the likes of Lindsey Graham and a conservative moment that has clearly forgotten the many ways that the rest of us got here. Had Lindsey Graham had his way, where could my anchor baby grandmother and her family have been deported to? Canada, where her mother had never set foot? China, where, in a random twist of events, her mother was born entirely by fluke? England, which her family had been nowhere near since 1638? Switzerland, the homeland of her anchor baby father?

When you deal with sending people back to where they came from in America, you deal in confusion even when you're only one generation in. A law can't be written to apply only to Mexican families (many of whom have stories like mine, with ancestors who moved in and out of the land that would become the United States for centuries before being told they weren't documented). When a law applies to them, it also applies to educated white Canadians born to missionaries from old American families. Minus the Canadian thing this sounds surprisingly close to what seem to be Lindsey Graham's ideal American.

Every family that has moved to the United States, at some point, gives birth to an anchor baby. It's no use isolating recent immigrants and their children as some vague harmful group. Their children aren't an outside threat, they belong to us. Like my grandmother and her ancestors that arrived in 1638, they are part of our history and our future; a grand tradition of American citizens whose parents were born elsewhere. My great-grandmother Lila qualified for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution before she qualified for citizenship in the United States. An American story can begin anywhere. That includes beginning with a mad dash across the border in an attempt to give a child a better life.

If Lindsey Graham looks back far enough, certainly even he, crusader for the salt-of-the-earth-elusive-real-America, will find an anchor baby lurking in his family tree, turning over in their grave.

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