You have to hand it to Barack Obama for not weasling out when asked a question that obviously was going to plop him into the midst of North Carolina's roiling debate over illegal immigration.
Interviewed by WUNC during a campaign trip last weekend, Obama was queried about his stance on community college education for illegal immigrants. His response was not only what I think is the correct one — let them in — but he carefully and thoughtfully explained his position. The N&O reprinted his comments; see for yourself if you missed them the first time. Of course illegal immigrants shouldn't be here, Obama said, and steps to keep them out are appropriate. But he also called for clearer pathways to citizenship for those already here. That makes sense, because many of them do work that is important to our economy.
As for community college admission, Obama takes the same position advocated by Governor Easley and several others who have shown wise leadership on this issue. When young people are brought to this country and grow up here, graduating from our public schools, it's both smart and compassionate to let them pursue advanced education. And there should be provisions under which they can work while pursuing citizenship.
Obama has standing to talk about America being a nation of immigrants, how that has molded our national character and benefitted us in many ways. It's a concept that always has struck a chord with me.
As I've explained in The N&O before, my father — technically my adoptive father because my parents adopted me when I was 10 months old — was born in Albania and came to this country in 1920, at age 10.
His family was from the town of Korce, in the country's southeast near the Greek border. In fact the town had been part of Greece; it changed hands several times in the turbulent World War I era.
The Ellis Island Web site allows you to track immigrants who came through there. Knowing my father's year of birth and year of arrival, I can summon up a copy of the ship's manifest listing him and his mother.
The records show that Michael Fourntji, 10 years old, and Polixeni Fourntji, 37, arrived on Oct. 26, 1920, aboard the passenger liner Pannonia, which had sailed from Piraeus, Greece. Their home town was listed as Koritsa, Greece, and their ethnicity as "Albanian, Greek." There is a picture of the Pannonia, built for Cunard in Scotland and looking like the Titanic. At home, I have a photo of my grandmother and father at the time. She is well-dressed. He has on a sailor suit.
Here's the rest of their story in a nutshell: They went to Detroit, where my grandfather had gone the year before. My father learned English under the tutelage of Catholic nuns (his family was Greek Orthodox); gained competitive admittance to Cass Technical High School; graduated from Wayne State University and earned his master's in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. He went to work for the Department of the Navy during World War II and moved with my mother (she was from a small town in Indiana; they were married in 1942) to the Washington area. He stayed with the post-war Department of Defense and eventually worked his way up to the top-most rung of the career civil service. By the time he retired in 1971, he was in charge of trying to get the different armed services to use the same kind of electronic components in their aircraft and missiles, to save money. It was a tough sell.
After my grandfather died in Detroit in the mid-1950s, my grandmother came to live with us in rural northern Virginia. She had never learned to speak English and my father's Albanian was pretty rusty by then. My mother, I and my two (younger) sisters couldn't speak a word of it. My grandmother was miserable and died in a state hospital several months after she tried to kill herself with a knife.
So I saw the best and the worst of immigration from a family perspective. My father became a completely assimilated and successful American. My grandmother struggled to manage the transition — circumstances in Detroit were modest, with the Depression knocking her and my grandfather for a loop. And her final-stage relocation to the Virginia boondocks was disastrous.
Education was my father's ticket to a fulfilling life. His parents wanted him to get a job after high school to help put food on the family table, but he continued on to college, working on the side in auto plants so he could pay the bills. Under the immigration laws of the time, they were perfectly legal residents, or so I assume (my father became a naturalized citizen). But given the opportunity, his drive to learn paid off handsomely for him, eventually for his wife and children and I dare say for the country whose government employed him for 30 years. Many of today's legal immigrants can tell similar stories. Why should we not be looking for ways to broaden opportunities for all who want to better themselves while contributing to our society?