The United States is a nation of immigrants. We asked readers to share their families’ stories.
Happy Fourth of July!
Controversies around immigration are nothing new. But the Trump administration’s decision to separate children from their parents crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally touched a nerve with many Americans. President Donald Trump ordered the practice to stop, and a judge ordered federal officials to reconnect families.
Today, we hold up a mirror to America and reflect that we are largely a nation of immigrants. With the exception of Native Americans and people brought here against their will as slaves, the United States has been populated by people seeking a better life, as refugees or people escaping poverty, exploitation and oppression.
That diversity is a strength. In my June 24 column about immigration, I invited readers to share their family’s stories.
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Enjoy our American family album.
Kate Riley, editorial page editor
Interned for their Japanese heritage
I am a son of immigrant parents who came to America from Japan as Christian ministers in 1937. I was born the following year in California. When World War II broke out, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to my imprisonment as a 3-year-old for more than three years. There was a paucity of voices speaking out against this government action.
I began my educational career in the Poston concentration camp in Arizona, but once I was given the opportunity that America is well-known for, I was able to complete my education at Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School. I recently retired from private practice as a psychiatrist.
President Donald Trump’s attitude and actions are shameful aspects of America that every decent American should speak out against.
Joseph T. Okimoto, Vashon Island
European refugees, American ideals
My parents were displaced persons of World War II. They were German- Hungarians. My twin brother and I were born in a refugee camp in Austria.
The family came to the U.S. when my brother and I were infants. We subsequently had a sister who was born in the U.S. We were sponsored immigrants of a Lutheran church in New Jersey, near Philadelphia.
Our father died when my bother and I were 8-years-old. Our mother brought up her three children as a single parent. She worked very hard.
Eventually, I became a physician, my brother became a university professor and our sister became a nurse.
When we were growing up, we learned and appreciated all the wonderful things this country stands for: freedom, opportunity, human rights, human dignity, equality, justice.
It is so sad to see the anger and hatred that now exist.
Peter Mohai, Seattle
A mother’s sacrifice elevates her children
My mother, Maria Cornelia Crisantos, had never worked in the fields before coming to California, from Michoacan, Mexico, in 1964. But she didn’t speak English. She worked with her body so we, her children, could work with our minds.
We slept where we could, in the car, in the fields, in structures with no windows, doors or running water. Someone asked if I was homeless as a child. Yes, I said. I was wrong. I was houseless, but not homeless. Family makes a “home.”
We put ourselves through college, financially. But we got there from working as my mom taught us, in the fields or office jobs. We have college degrees and professions thanks to our mom.
Besides teaching us a love of education and work ethic, she taught us to give back. She walked with Cesar Chavez and would pick up other women wanting to attend his meetings. She taught us citizenship by example.
She became a naturalized citizen before her death, but her ideals aligned with our country’s ideals long before.
Maria R. Fergus, Poulsbo
Holocaust survivors get a second chance
My father was born in Czechoslovakia, my mother in Romania. Both of my parents lived through the Holocaust. My mother was in Auschwitz, and my father was in a work camp. They met after the war in a survivors camp in Austria and married. My sister was born there. They came to the United States via Ellis Island in 1951. I was born in New Jersey in 1953.
My parents struggled to make a living. First, they bought a chicken farm in New Jersey, which failed. Then they opened a men’s clothing store, where my mother sold and altered clothing. She learned to speak Spanish, in addition to her five other languages, from her primarily Puerto Rican customers.
My father’s first family, a wife and three children, were all murdered in the camps. My mother’s family, mother and sisters also were killed. My mother always felt guilty that she survived and her sisters did not.
I am grateful that my parents were allowed to come to the United States to escape the death camps. With all that is going on now with immigration issues, I am saddened that people trying to escape persecution and torture are being turned away at the border.
Reba Weiss, Seattle
An Irish-American Union Army soldier
My paternal grandfather, Joseph Tippen Parks, was born in 1843 and emigrated to this country from Dundalk, Ireland, with his family in 1848. They sailed in a “coffin ship” and made their residence in New York City. Several years later they moved to Hudson, Ohio.
Joseph joined the Union Army in 1861 as part of the 29th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and fought through the entire Civil War. His outfit participated in 12 battles, including Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain. He was on Sherman’s March to the Sea when he was critically wounded in the chest. I have the bullet and the shattered button from his tunic that deflected the bullet.
Joseph lived to father six children and outlive two wives. Thanks to his strength and determination, he bravely served this country when he hardly knew it, and he was just a lowly Irish immigrant.
Robert Parks, Shoreline
From Hong Kong to Vermont
My mother roused us before dawn that July morning in 1971. We had an appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong — our last immigration interview before we could unite with my father in the U.S. I was 14.
We took a van, a bus and a ferry to cross over to Hong Kong Island. After a walk up the hill on Garden Road, we waited with the masses at the consulate. The journey took three or four hours, the interview 15 minutes.
My father had left us two years prior, speaking no English, to work for Basketville in Putney, Vermont. One of the best wicker/rattan craftsmen, my father could weave a 15-foot Chinese dragon with undulating curves or a life-size roaring lion.
Years later, assigned to Hong Kong as an FBI agent, I walked to work every day from my three-bedroom apartment in the Mid-Levels neighborhood. My office? It was in the same consulate where years before my family, “yearning to breath free,” awaited the opening of the “golden door.”
Becky Chan, Seattle
A bilingual nurturer enriches lives
I met my future wife, Claudia, in Mexico 20 years ago. I was teaching second grade at an American school, and she was finishing a degree in architecture. We were married in Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico, in 2001.
She moved to Washington with me, speaking very little English, leaving all immediate family behind and becoming a stay-at-home mother to our two daughters for about 10 years. After the girls were both in school, she worked in a variety of part-time jobs with young children, which prompted her to return to school to pursue an education degree. After two years of night and weekend classes, she graduated in 2014 with a master’s in teaching.
This fall she will begin her fifth year teaching at Puesta del Sol Elementary, a Spanish immersion school in Bellevue. She has dedicated countless hours outside of her classroom to provide the most meaningful and enriching immersive education in Spanish possible. Her students (and our daughters) have benefited immeasurably from her presence and nurturing.
Kjell Mattson, Renton
From immigrant to immigration lawyer
I was not trying to escape violence, war or hunger. I was not looking for a better life. I was not looking for my American dream. I was young and happy when I met my husband-to-be when we both were legal interns in my home country, Ukraine. He was from Seattle. I was from Lviv.
A few years later, I quit my well-paying, world-traveling, career-promising job, packed up my bags and moved to the U.S. to be with the man I loved.
Fifteen years later, I am still with the man I love raising our three kids. I graduated from the University of Washington law school and work as an immigration attorney helping those whose immigration stories are much more dramatic than mine.
Oksana Bilobran, Burien
A new life in Eastern Washington
In the early 1900s, my maternal grandfather, Joseph Krsak, emigrated to the United States of America from what is now Czechoslovakia. Among the people he met were relatives of Elena Chavez, a young woman living in her native Mexico. Elena’s relatives urged her to come meet Joseph. She did. They married in 1910. On a small dairy farm in Spokane County in Eastern Washington, they raised a family of seven children, all of whom attended school in a one-room schoolhouse.
Elena died before she could welcome her first grandchild. When Joseph died in 1955, he had 18 grandchildren. More were to come.
Among the first-generation Americans raised by Joseph and Elena were World War II veterans, businessmen, a farmer, a laboratory technologist, a dental assistant and homemakers.
Among Joseph and Elena’s grandchildren are a lawyer, successful businessmen, successful businesswomen, firefighters, a bus driver, a custodian and a score of teachers. To this auspicious list, great-grandchildren have added nurses, a doctor and marketing consultants.
Succeeding generations continue to benefit from the example of service and hard work of our immigrant ancestors to this land of opportunity.
Judy Young, Seattle
From war refugee to U.S. veteran
As a refugee of World War II and a 20-year-old immigrant from Germany living in Huntsville, Alabama, with my sister’s family, I joined the U.S. Air Force in 1962. I was trained as a dental assistant and was assigned to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. My work habits seemed to please the oral surgeon who was stationed there. He recommended that I take college courses in the evening and then apply to The Ohio State University, which he had attended. He also offered financial help if I should need it.
After a bachelor’s degree in zoology, I graduated near the top of my class after four years in the School of Dentistry at The Ohio State University.
I then joined the U.S. Public Health Service for one year in Boston and three years in Washington, D.C. I was accepted to the graduate program in endodontics at the University of Washington in 1977. The Public Health Service paid for all my school expenses and continued my salary. After the two-year program, I had to pay back with two years of work in Baltimore.
Since we liked Seattle, we returned there to open a private dental office. For about 20 years while in private practice, I volunteered as an affiliate associate professor, supervising graduate students in the School of Dentistry of the University of Washington.
Norbert Hertl, Edmonds
A ‘haven of hope’
Both of my parents emigrated from Lithuania/Russia. My father came to the United States to escape pogroms and economic hardship early in the 1900s as a young boy. He grew up to become a pharmacist and eventually a medical doctor serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and then afterward as a staff physician with the Veteran’s Administration.
My mother escaped from Europe just before World War II. She had trained as a nurse in Lithuania and continued working as a nurse after coming to the U.S. Her entire family was killed by the Nazis during the war except for one brother who was a soldier in the Soviet army fighting against the Nazis.
The United States was a haven of hope for her and the other fortunate people who could make their way to America from war-torn Europe. Immigrants are forever grateful to be part of our nation where people from around the world see the United States as a place of hope and opportunity.
Sandy Kraus, Seattle
My father’s dream is the dream of many
My story begins in 1934, 14 years before my birth, when my father came over on the boat from Poland (a good time for a Jew to immigrate), and he was allowed in and began the process of becoming a citizen (as opposed to later, when a boat full of Jews were refused entry).
Three things became the basis of his life as he supported a wife and three children: his Jewish heritage; his U.S. citizenship; and his membership in the Bakers Union, which kept him working for 45 years. He was always grateful to this country for allowing him survival and livelihood, and his family shares in that gratitude. He was the youngest of 12 children, seven of whom became Americans and five of whom stayed in Poland and perished along with their own families in the Holocaust.
This history is on my mind as I observe the evil that is being perpetrated by our government and causing such great pain and suffering for so many defenseless people. Those families stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border and separated are hoping for the same chance at the so-called American Dream that my father dreamed about 84 years ago, and it’s the height of hypocrisy that so many immigrants and children and grandchildren of immigrants would be against them even having a chance.
As the son of an immigrant who has enjoyed the benefits of our society, I feel compassion for others who desire the humble but free life I’ve led.
Percy Hilo, Seattle
Seeking religious freedom in the American West
My great-great-grandfather, Frederick, was 32 when he packed up his family, including three tiny sons, and departed Denmark for the U.S. Before his journey was over, he walked 1,200 miles across America pulling a handcart with his family’s belongings. He helped an older couple ford rivers, carrying them on his back, and in return they gave him milk from their cow for his baby.
Denmark’s 1849 constitution allowed for religious freedom, and Frederick and his family joined the Mormon church but suffered some persecution in the formerly all-Lutheran county. He grew up on a farm, one still connected to a large feudal estate. The last child in a large family, he made his livelihood working as a farmhand on other people’s farms. When he immigrated in 1857, he and his wife had already lost three children to disease.
America offered Frederick many opportunities, and he took advantage of them to serve his adopted nation and community. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He was a leader in the small Central Utah towns where he lived. Twenty years after his arrival, he and his family helped settle a remote part of Utah east of the Wasatch Mountains. He is buried in the cemetery in this small village, where six generations of my family have lived.
Eileen Crawford, Seattle
From Russia to Seattle and an Army career
About 100 years ago (1921), my father (Victor S. Pojaroff, later Page) arrived at the Port of Seattle in the steerage of a freighter from Shanghai, China. He was a Russian refugee whose college education had been interrupted for service fighting Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution.
Losing that fight, he fled to China and eventually Seattle. With few clothes, little money and a minimum of mementos, he was processed in immigration and released into a world where he knew no one and could speak very little English. With few resources, he eventually accepted the offer advertised on billboards, “Join the Army and get an education.”
He joined the Army in 1924 and acquired an education in radio communication that led to a very successful Army career. During the second World War, he served as a communications and liaison officer dealing with the Russian Lend-Lease program and later Russian-coordination work for General MacArthur’s staff. Finally, after turning down an appointment as the officer in charge of the large Alaska Communication System office in Anchorage, Alaska, and with 28 years of service in the United States Army, my father retired.
Victor R. Page, Covington
Proud to be Italian-Americans
My grandparents came from Italy in the early 20th century. My grandfather came on his own, with no English, and only a few years of schooling. What he had was courage and an adventurous spirit. He was 16-years-old.
Today, Antonio LaTorre would be called an “economic immigrant.” But he did not come to get rich. As University of Washington professor Angelo Pellegrini (another immigrant) explained, opportunity meant that in America, hard work could earn a decent life: a house, enough food, a future for your children. Where you came from, you could work yourself to death and still be hungry, with no hope that things would ever improve.
Antonio worked his way across the U.S. from New York, ending up in Seattle, where he met and married Antonietta Grosso. His jobs included lumberjack and barber. Finally, he started his own business, delivering oil, coal and wood. Antonietta handled accounting for Jolly LaTorre Fuel, and two of their sons worked in the family business.
My grandparents had five children, working hard to raise them. They bought a house and kept a huge garden. Antonietta preserved hundreds of jars of vegetables and fruit, and Antonio made his own wine. All their sons served in World War II, in the Army, Navy, and Marines. One son was killed in the war.
My grandparents became citizens and were very proud to be Americans. Their lives demonstrated courage, independence, hard work and devotion to family, which are virtues both of their original country and of America.
Theresa Graham, Seattle
Irish roots, U.S. democracy
My grandfather, William (“Bill”) Griffin, came to America from County Kerry, Ireland, in 1907 when he was 20-years-old. He settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a neighborhood filled with other immigrants (and a few of his siblings and relatives). In 1917, he became a naturalized citizen and married Catherine (“Kitty”) Quilter, another Irish immigrant from County Kerry. Bill and Kitty died before I was born, and I know of them only through stories.
Bill worked in The Union Grill that was close to the courthouse and frequented by lawyers, judges and politicians. He soon became the Democratic committeeman for his precinct and went door to door to introduce himself to new neighbors as the Democratic “commit–TEE-man” (his children tried to correct his pronunciation, but they gave up after a while). Bill recruited Kitty and their four children to baby-sit so that he could drive the neighborhood mothers to register to vote and to vote on election days.
Bill was generous and compassionate. Young men just over from Ireland heard that they could find a place to stay at his home, and Bill and Kitty took them in until they were able to get themselves on their feet. Bill was proud to be an American citizen and never took it for granted. But he never forgot his Irish roots, and whenever he was under the weather, he sat with my mother and dictated long letters home to his mother, grandmother and siblings in Ireland.
Mary Kennedy, Seattle
Assimilating into a new homeland
My four beloved grandparents from the northeast Italian Dolomite Alps (near Cortina) came separately as teenagers circa 1900-1910 (they saw the looming World War I), with what they wore and carried. They settled in urban northern New Jersey and worked as carpenters, shoemakers, wool- and silk-mill operators, etc. They went through proper then required Ellis Island processing.
They gave me my beloved late parents, dad in 1916 and mom in 1919. Public schools opened after work for volunteer teachers who taught English reading and writing to the new legal immigrants who wanted to assimilate and become U.S. citizens who support the U.S. Constitution and country, in word and deed. No equivocation or search for special treatment.
Their children — my parents, aunts, and uncles — were thus part of the World War II Greatest Generation — which my grandparents knew was needed and supported. My parents’ generation was taught in non-bilingual English speaking schools and would sit at the dinner table and share with their parents what they learned in school that day. While Italian was preserved for family language and culture (even for me and my brothers and cousins), becoming an English reading and speaking American was paramount.
Brian DeLuca, Seattle