*I posted this on Facebook in January 2017 before Inauguration Day.
Over the last couple of months, a few people have told me how much they have enjoyed my political posts and my history lessons. Don’t worry – your children will never be forced to read something that I have written and I highly doubt that you would buy a book of Amy ramblings even if I wrote it. But I’ve been waiting decades for this sort of compliment so tonight, I’ll post another. I sort of wrote it in my head while at the gym and it includes both a history lesson and political commentary. If you enjoy both, read the whole thing. If you only like the history, I promise to tell you when to stop reading.
In 1846, Casper and Katherine Johanning left Halle, Westphalia and emigrated to the United States. They took with them their 2 small children and Katherine’s parents. Westphalia was one of the several German principalities in Central Europe but at the time, there was no German nation as we know it today. Rather, “Germany” consisted of several smaller principalities; principalities whose people shared a common ancestry, language, and culture but were not united under a shared constitution, flag or government.
My knowledge of ‘Germany’ during that time is scant. I do know that at the time of the Johanning’s departure, Westphalia was still very feudal. One’s station in life was predetermined based on birthright. There was the king, local princes, and an aristocracy but no middle class to speak of and certainly, most of the population fell into the peasant class. Property ownership beyond the aristocracy was nonexistent. Moving “up the ladder” or advancing one’s station was impossible. I know from letters that have survived that Casper and Katherine had an extremely hard life in Westphalia; they worked on an estate for minimal wages and were always in fear of the over lord. Violence against peasants was common.
The documentation and memoirs that we have indicated that a friend and former neighbor of Casper’s had emigrated to the United States – specifically to eastern Missouri – and had established himself and his family there on land purchased for 12 & a half cents an acre. At that time, the US government needed people to settle lands west of the Mississippi River (the subject of which I will pick up on in a future post…believe me) and so land was cheap. All you had to do was promise to remain on & improve the land for X number of years, pay the acreage cost and the land was yours.
Based on this promise, Casper and Katherine loaded up their 2 kids and her parents and took the 6-week journey to America across the Atlantic. I do not know what kind of ship they took but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was not a Carnival cruise liner. Depending on the memoir, the family landed in either New Orleans or somewhere on the East Coast where after disembarking, they made their way to Casco, Franklin County Missouri.
I do not know what immigration laws were in effect at that time. Certainly, visas were not required and the manifest that Casper and Katherine signed when they boarded the ship (or disembarked…I’m not sure which), did not provide a sponsor’s name. It is entirely possible that all they had to do was sign their name, get off the ship and go about their business as Americans.
Of note: at the time of the Johanning’s immigration, America was at war with Mexico over the annexation of Texas. Westward expansion, while encouraged, did not come without controversy because westward expansion and settlement would ultimately lead to territorial requests for statehood. And applications for statehood would invariably lead to the discussion of slavery’s legality in said territory. It was crucial that there be a balance between slave and free states – specifically in congressional representation so any additional state was fraught with controversy and compromise.
So Casper and Katherine built a life in Casco Missouri. They did well there – bought more land, built a bigger house and had more children. In 1867, one of their older daughters, Elizabeth moved to Lawrence Kansas. I find this move fascinating as there does not seem to be a reason for it. Perhaps she was inspired by her parent’s story of leaving Germany. Maybe there were job opportunities. We do know she was not following a man. All we know is that she boarded a train and moved to Lawrence, finding work as a housekeeper.
In time she made connections and at some point, visited a small country church near Willow Springs and Worden Kansas. There she met the pastor’s son, who in time, she married and with whom had a family. This church is the same congregation in which I was baptized and confirmed.
Over the next few years, Elizabeth’s entire living family, including Casper and Katherine moved to northeastern Kansas. Again, it is unclear why everyone moved west. Perhaps, as farmers, land was more expensive or there were years of drought in Missouri. Another possibility was political. The Johannings were ardent Union sympathizers and Missouri, while never seceding was firmly in the Confederate camp. So perhaps this played a role in their decision. I really do not know.
Regardless, they all came to Kansas. One of their son’s, Frederick William (he went by William) – Elizabeth’s brother – bought and settled on the farm 1/4 mile west of where I grew up. William begat William Henry (W.H). W.H. begat Carl. Carl begat Orville and in 1972, Orville begat me.
This is the turning point toward political commentary. For those uninterested in a scathing indictment of our attitude and policies toward immigration….I suggest you stop reading NOW.
I often wonder when, or at what generational point, the Johanning’s stopped supporting immigration as Casper understood it and/or decided that they were entitled to consider themselves true “Americans” (as compared to newbies who want to come to the US today). I know there was a change because of a conversation with my Dad. When Trump first became a political force, we discussed his candidacy (and by ‘discussed’ I told my Dad that in no uncertain terms was it acceptable for him to vote for that man). Dad said he supported the idea of the wall, knowing full well that he would be met with the harshest of criticism =). It should be noted here that my father did not vote for Trump. I would stake my life on it. My devout Christian father could never bring himself to vote for someone who had been married three times, speak so disparagingly of women and who used the word ‘pussy’ to describe something other than a cat.
But his comment about the wall stuck with me because at some point – at some generation – the Johannings forgot that they too were immigrants and forgot what it must be like to weigh the costs and benefits of leaving everything that you know for the unknown. I mean….think about that for a minute. Think about packing your entire life in a suitcase or trunk, taking your immediate family and moving half way across the world, to a country you have never visited, know nothing about and cannot communicate in. Just think about what drives someone to do that. I guarantee you – GUARANTEE – that you are not doing it on the promise, real or otherwise, that the state will take care of you. Perhaps “rumors” of state assistance help incent people to come to America, but it’s not the only reason, not with the risks they have to take.
What makes me feel a little better is that my family is not unusual. In fact, throughout the last 250 years, there are countless examples – COUNTLESS – of anti immigrant policies, discrimination, defamation and sometimes violence in this country against immigrants. Yes – in the United States of America. If you doubt me….well, you are ignorant of the facts. Read some books. Good God – Google “the history of immigration and effects on America.” Anything to give you an idea of what immigrants to this country have had to deal with over the centuries. Legal or illegal, documented or undocumented…being an immigrant is hard. Very hard.
Name your immigrant group and there is a story. Germans were not welcome at first and my God, during the world wars? I cannot even imagine what it was like to have a German accent in the United States during the wars. I suspect that Casper and Katherine faced discrimination, as did their children. Irish Catholics, Italians, Eastern Europeans – they also faced hostility and denigration. The Chinese! Oh, my heavens – the Chinese…after being recruited into coming to this country with the express purpose of building the transcontinental railroad, they were treated horribly by our government. Horribly. And this was before we interred the Japanese during WW2. Look it up. It’s embarrassing.
The reasons given were surprisingly consistent with what we hear today. What I found most interesting was that “safety” and “job security / economic concerns” were high on the list for “reasons we do not like immigrants” even at a point of full employment and before weapons of mass destruction. Seriously. Employers, owners of factories, railroads went overseas to recruit workers because there were not enough Americans to work in the factories and yet the children and grand children of immigrants were afraid that their jobs would be taken away.
I firmly believe that the real reasons behind anti-immigration policies and attitudes back then AND today are far less tangible. They are difficult to accept and certainly not politically correct. But they are well documented and if you ask yourself how you really feel about immigrants, you will admit that part of you feels the same way:
– Immigrants look different
– Immigrants dress differently
– Immigrants do not speak English or if they do, it is not spoken well enough to be entitled to live in this country. For God’s sake, we speak English here!
– Immigrants celebrate different holidays – holidays that are not part of our tradition and holidays that we do not understand.
– Immigrants are not Christian. They do not understand the values that built this country.
– Immigrants eat weird food.
The list goes on. One of my favorites is “immigrants cost the tax payers too much money.” OK. Let’s talk about this. Undocumented (aka illegal) immigrants do not get social benefits. They do not receive welfare or food stamps. They do not receive Medicare or health insurance. They will be treated at the ER – but that is it. They work for less than minimum wage because employers can get away with paying them off the books. And they are not protected by our labor laws so abuse is rampant.
Now: the children born to immigrants (illegal and legal) are considered citizens and therefore, have the right to go to public school and are eligible for social welfare benefits. And yes, there is a social/public cost to this. But I argue that if you truly document the hard cost of immigration – specifically undocumented immigrants (or if you want to be politically incorrect…”illegals”), the dollar value is surprisingly low and perhaps is a wash. Some “illegals” pay social security and medicare taxes (I do not understand how, but there are several sources that point this out as a fact). They rent homes and they buy stuff. As such, they contribute to the economy – including the tax base. Their labor is part of our gross domestic product.
Think about that. If we expel 11 million people or build some ridiculous wall, there will be real economic impacts. Real economic impacts to you and your wallet. GDP goes down. The tax base decreases. Productivity declines. The argument that undocumented immigrants take jobs from hard working Americans is also nonsense. Hard working Americans are not interested in those jobs. That is the reality.
The problem with immigration is not what Trump claims it to be. The problem with our immigration policy is very very simple: our current policy is not aligned to our economic, social and political goals. People come to this country….have always come to this country…..because there is a demand for their skills. In 1846, the United States demanded farmers. Casper, Katherine and others like them met that demand. Today, the demands are different, but the concept is the same. If we get rid of the demand, we negatively impact our economy. If we cut off the supply, our economy is impacted. Is that smart public policy? No. It is not.
And now I am going to say something very controversial. If you have made it to this point, you might be thinking, “yes…but my tax dollars are going to pay for Spanish language teachers in public schools because these kids do not speak English.” My response is simple: “And?” I mean really – what else do you have? Because that is not a reason to deny someone entry into this country or to kick someone out. Prove to me that the costs incurred to teach an immigrant child English is greater than what that child produces in GDP and tax revenue and then we will have a discussion. Until then: Shut. Up. An educated labor force is table stakes for any industrialized nation. Table stakes mean the price of entry. In my line of work, it’s the cost I expend to on board and train a new employee before he/she starts to contribute back to my team and my company. (The pay back period is 18 -24 months by the way). Moreover, a healthy work force is table stakes for ANY industrialized nation. You do not want to pay for immigrant health care? Fine. You do not want to pay to educate immigrant children? Fine. Then accept the fact that the United States will eventually fall from First World status to something less than First World. That is the real cost of xenophobic policies.
And here is how I know I’m right. I would never assume that readers of my posts agree that the contributions I have made to my community, state and country have exceeded the costs of my existence. But for those of you who know my father Orville; great, great, grandson of Casper and Katherine, I dare you to say that YOU would have been personally better off if he were born in Halle, Westphalia, Germany (It’s Germany now =)). I also dare you to suggest that Worden, Douglas County, St. Johns UCC, Kansas and the United States would be better off without Orville Johanning as its citizen and congregant.
Anyone who knows my father knows the answer to that dare. You know you are infinitely better off – both in soft and hard benefits – because of his presence and his contributions. So I ask you: the “illegal” that is sucking the tax payer dry…..how do you KNOW that what he/she is producing today or in what their legacy will produce in years to come is less than the investment we make today?
The truth is: you don’t. Statistically, the investments we make in immigration, education, health care and other public goods pay off decades from now. And that is really hard to accept when you feel that an immigrant, legal or otherwise, is a threat to you today.
The truth is, we do not like ‘different.’ We are uncomfortable with people that do not have our same history. I get it. I really do. A good portion of my job requires me to interview potential employees for positions in the United States, Europe, and India. Man….some of those names are hard to pronounce and let me tell you, some of those accents are thick. When I go overseas to visit my team, they always want to eat at restaurants with weird food. They celebrate non-Christian holidays and I do not always understand their cultural and social hierarchies.
But you know what? It does not take long for me to learn how to pronounce names and after a few conversations, I pick up on the accent. Foreigners become easier to understand. And it’s okay to ask someone in India (Durga…this is for you), to speak slower or louder so that I can understand what they are saying. And just about every restaurant in the world has chicken.
I really believe that America has a choice. One option is to get over it. Refuse to support Trump’s dumbass, expensive border wall and say “hell no” to his deportation force. Demand comprehensive immigration reform that meets the needs of our economy and supports our moral high ground. God knows we talk about it enough. Hell, we wrap ourselves in the flag so tightly and tell ourselves that the USA is the Garden of Eden on earth. We love that story. Let more people in legally – for the right reasons – for the reasons we lord over the rest of the world.
The other choice is to accept that the lies we were told as children and the lies we continue to tell ourselves in order to maintain the moral high ground are just that: lies. Accept that the Statue of Liberty is just a lovely piece of art in New York Harbor. Accept that we are the people of “Irish Need Not Apply” and “No Chinks Allowed.” Accept that the values our soldiers fight for come with a footnote. Because THAT, to date, is our real history. Our real history includes immigrants coming to this country not because they are welcomed with open arms, but those who came to this country in spite of not being welcomed. Their perseverance, faith, and love of country, DESPITE the backlash is what built America brick by brick. Their contributions are every bit as important as yours or mine.
I have no idea what Casper and Katherine experienced but I can guess. I’m glad they made the decision to come to America but I’m saddened that they were likely treated poorly by someone or someones because of their accent. I’m also apologetic for any negative actions or feelings that their descendants may have portrayed to others in the same boat.
By admitting the past, attitudes can change. By admitting fear of “different” and fear of change, we can look at immigration policy more fairly. I hope you do. Because right now, America has not only lost the moral high ground. We are not living up to the expectations we set for or the stories we tell our children. If we fail to invest today – if we choose fear over the story of American goodness – this nation and your descendants will go the way of all the other empires. It will not happen tomorrow and it will not happen next week. But it will happen. Just because it worked out for Casper and Katherine does not mean it will work out for future generations. Today I’m very pessimistic about our future. Prove me wrong.
Amy, from the Archives