As the immigration debate hit another low last week, I received the news that my favorite immigrant died: my father-in-law, Paul Gavora.
I don’t want to politicize Paul’s story too much, or really at all. For me, the man wasn’t a talking point; he was a hero.
Still, one of the things about today’s immigration debate that breaks my heart is how both sides have lost the plot. There are legitimate policy arguments on all sides, but the story of immigration is getting slaughtered in the crossfire.
Consider my father-in-law. Born Vladimir Gavora in 1931, in the then-Czechoslovakian (today just Slovakian) village of Brezova pod Bradlom, Vlad grew up fast. When he was seven, the Germans invaded. When he was 13, his father died. The same year, the Red Army moved in. He saw things then he didn’t like to talk about. In tenth grade, he was expelled for questioning Communist doctrine in class. In his day, it was the teachers who were snowflakes.
Expulsion slammed a door on any future he might have had at home. So in 1948, he swam the Danube by moonlight to escape the Communists. He made it to an Austrian refugee camp, where they sent him to Germany to finish high school. Colorado State University offered him a scholarship. To get there, he signed on as a hand on a United Nations refugee ship. During a storm of biblical proportions, he was tasked with preventing panicking passengers from rushing to the top deck for air. He was tied to the railing and given a billy club to beat the passengers back — for their own good.
In college, he changed his name to Paul and met his saintly wife, Donna. He soon transferred to the University of Chicago, where he worked as a milkman while pursuing a joint bachelor’s-master’s degree under Nobel Prize–winning economist Milton Friedman. When he heard about a teaching job at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he and a pregnant Donna packed their three young children in a car and drove north and west.
Alas, when he got to still-territorial Alaska, the job fell through. So he returned to his vocation as a milkman.
Eventually, he scrimped and borrowed enough money to open a small grocery store of his own in Fairbanks. Then he opened another. Eventually he had seven supermarkets, Fairbanks’s first shopping mall, and a wholesale food business that supplied native villages and the Russian far east alike. He also had nine children and invested his time, money, and love in his community.
Opinions will differ about the takeaway of Paul’s story. For me, one of the most important things is not that he got rich. It’s that the United States gave him a shot to carve out the life that he wanted — and he remained grateful for the opportunity his whole life.
Peter Schramm, another immigrant, and a scholar and friend (who passed away not long ago), often told the story of his family’s escape from Hungary after the failed 1958 uprising. “We are going to America,” Peter’s father told him.
“Why America?” Peter prodded.
“Because, son. We were born Americans but in the wrong place.”
Today the conversation about immigration is so toxic in part because we poisonously disagree about what it means to be an American. Thanks to the identity politics of the Left and the Right, immigrants are increasingly cast either as imported victims ready-made to join the Coalition of the Oppressed or invading “takers,” “rapists,” and even “animals.” If White House adviser Stephen Miller has his way, the children of immigrants would be seen as a terrorism threat, which might explain why the Trump administration is snatching babies from their mothers at the border.
Of course there’s a kernel of truth to both sides’ awful shouting points on immigrants, but they crowd out the greater truth: Most immigrants, even those who are in the country illegally, aren’t animalistic members of MS-13, nor are they eager to be props for the latest campus debate about intersectionality. Neither victims nor villains, they are human beings desperate to make the most of the American dream as they see it.
That’s the immigration story in America: people leaving — or fleeing — the places of their birth for the freedom to try their best. No party owns that story. But each can abandon it.
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