Jose and Johannes: U.S. Immigrants, U.S. Lifeblood
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker now officially becomes the 16th prominent Republican -- if Donald Trump counts as a Republican -- to enter the 2016 presidential race. It’s not clear the field is complete, but it is certainly large enough.
Sixty-four years ago today, President Truman signed guest worker legislation officially called Public Law 78, but which was always known as the bracero program.
In the 1930s, huge disruptions in the U.S. farm economy and labor market during the Great Depression led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals living and working in the United States. After World War II, the opposite problem arose. A shortage of agricultural employees created pressure on Washington to allow workers to come north for the growing seasons.
“It is absolutely impossible, without the expenditure of very large amounts of manpower and money, to seal off our long land borders to all illegal immigration,” Harry Truman noted on July 13, 1951, while signing the bracero program into law.
“But,” the president added, “Congress will give us the tools we need to find and deport illegal immigrants once here and to discourage those of our own citizens who are aiding and abetting their movement into the country.”
This would prove wishful thinking, as policy pronouncements about immigration often are. Foreign migration, in other words, has always been both America’s lifeblood and a source of consternation on the part of those already here.
Speaking of immigrants, today is the 46th birthday of chef José Ramón Andrés Puerta, the Spanish-born owner of restaurants in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., and Miami Beach. Recently, Andrés backed out of an agreement to partner with Donald Trump on a new venture in the nation’s capital. Some of his foreign-born employees, the chef explained, took offense to Trump’s categorization of Mexicans as drug runners and rapists.
Andrés has a much different perspective on what immigrants bring to this country, one forged by his own experience.
“The first time I saw America was from my perch on the mast of a Spanish naval ship, where I could spot the Statue of Liberty reaching proudly into the open, endless American sky.”
Andrés wrote those words in December 2013, three weeks after he became an American citizen, about his first impressions of the United States.
“At night, I would often wonder whether that sky was the explanation for the stars on the American flag -- put there so the world would know that this is a place of limitless possibility, where anyone from anywhere can strive for a better life,” he added.
“I recalled that starry sky on Nov. 13, when after 23 years in America, my wife, Patricia, and I were sworn in as United States citizens,” he wrote. “The naturalization ceremony in Baltimore, attended by 72 other tearful immigrants from 35 countries, was a moment I had dreamed about since the day I arrived in America with little more than $50 and a set of cooking knives, determined to belong.”
America being an idea as well as a place, pilgrims like José Andrés have been coming here since before the U.S. flag was ever created. They’ve come by boat, horse, wagon, airplane, truck, car, railroad, or raft. Many have simply walked across the border, or in some cases swum across the mercurial body of water our southern neighbors call the Rio Bravo.
Andrés’ story put me in mind of a 19th century Dutchman named Johannes Remeeus, who made his way from his homeland with his family to Belgium, sailing from Antwerp in 1854. Remeeus kept a diary, which is how we know what he was thinking 161 years ago today -- and almost every day from May 30, 1854, to Aug. 28 of that year.
It took every kind of conveyance to get to their destination, which was Scott Walker’s home state of Wisconsin. The trip took up all the family’s money, depended on the good will of strangers, and required both good luck and fortitude.
The Hollanders, as Remeeus called himself and his countrymen, sailed aboard the Robert C. Winthrop, a sturdy New England vessel with a proud Massachusetts name. They were paired on ship with an equal number of Germans. Language barriers between the two groups -- and the ship’s crew -- were an issue, which may account for the fact that the Dutch passengers thought they were heading to New York, instead of Boston, which was where their actual destination.
Johannes Remeeus left a diary for his children and their descendants. It made its way into the Wisconsin public library system, and can be viewed here.
I will leave you with four entries, including the last one in which Johannes is already referring to himself as “John Remeeus.” He had been gone from the Netherlands fewer than 90 days, and is practically an American already.
June 11. Today, the hardest wind we had as yet experienced. Many were sick, and mother who had been feeling so much better for the past few days was compelled to go to bed. The ship rolled violently. We now learned what a terrific force water exerts when stirred by a gale … There was much rain until June 15.
June 23. Fair weather, the ship was steady. In the evening the Germans fittingly celebrated Saint John's Day, which also was the 25th birthday of one of their group. This man was escorted to the aft deck where his sister presented him with a bottle of [Rhine] wine, of which they had a plentiful supply ... After having given him our congratulations, we all drank his health with many bottles of beer which the captain had in store. We also proposed a toast to the captain, the officers of the ship, and in fact everybody and everything. That evening we learned how the Germans surpassed all other peoples at singing.”
July 4. Declaration of Independence, which is celebrated by every American. So did we. Early in the morning flags were run up, and at 8 the crew fired salutes. One man who had been a dealer in fireworks got permission to open a box of guns. Everybody who had a liking for shooting could do as much of it as he wished. At 10 one of the pigs was distributed among the passengers. Saw many fish, also a ship. We had a fresh breeze; the evening was fair but cold. At the request of Mr. Westven, the captain gave the Hollanders permission to sing psalms. The captain sang the last psalm with us. We were approaching the Newfoundland Banks.
August 28. I began to work for an English speaking man, earning $1.25½ a day. Soon I became a citizen of Milwaukee, a youthful and beautiful city, ideally situated for commerce.
Your Father, JOHN REMEEUS