A number of years ago a friend of mine was chosen to be in a certain denominational committee. After a particular vote, she received a tongue lashing. “I wanted you to know,” said the leader of the group, “that you have been chosen because you are a minority and a woman and since you came to this committee you have been a disappointment. We expected you to vote in a particular way, and you have disappointed us.”
I was thinking of her during this time when immigration has been boiling over into a national and international debate. There is a tendency to lump all immigrants together as though we are all thinking the same thing.
The Stefan family (mother, father, and four children) came to the United States in December 1966 after staying in the refugee camps in Italy for 16 months. We could not come here unless we had a sponsor and unless that sponsor guaranteed jobs to both of our parents. Thus we arrived in Akron, Ohio and then moved to Detroit, Michigan. For over five years, my parents worked in the third shift at Henry Hospital in Detroit in the Maintenance Department. After five years they moved to the second shift.
In the first ten years of our living in the United States, the four highlights for my parents were:
1) They were able to go to church as often as they wanted and were never called to report about what they saw in the church worship service. 2) Within the first two years my parents paid for the 6 Dutch airline tickets that the US gave to us to come from Rome to New York. My father and mother did not want to be a burden to the USA and paid their transportation debt as soon as they were able. 3) They were able to buy their first home. 4) Within three years they received their green cards and later on my mother, three sisters, and I became US citizens. My father always regretted that he could not learn enough English to pass the test in order to become a US citizen, but he was so thankful that the United States has given him a new home.
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Having the green card meant that we could travel from Detroit to Windsor, Canada. Most often I would travel with my best friend who was a US citizen and when I would be asked for citizenship papers, I would reply that I have a green card. On about one fourth of the trips to Windsor, the border guards would ask me for my green card. There have been times when some people in our entourage forgot their green cards and we would have to leave them at the border to go home get their green cards and get them over. Therefore, it became a known thing among ourselves to show our green cards to one another before we went to Canada.
I also learned that traveling with the green card outside of the United States made it more difficult to get visas outside the US. I had to stay an extra week in Romania and get my visas in order, because some other countries took longer to grant me visas. I never had any problems returning to the United States from abroad and I traveled to over 10 countries before I received my USA citizenship.
I am writing this because one of my daughters asked me how hard it was for me to have the green card as an ID. Did I feel that it was burden or did it make me feel like a second class citizen? My answer was that I never felt that the green card was an inconvenience or that the border patrol was inconsiderate to me because when I opened my mouth and answered his questions, he knew that I am foreigner. I felt privileged that I was able to be in this country and this country gave me an opportunity to come here. (As far as the accent goes, it is still with me. After 9/11 when I traveled with my kids, they jokingly told me that I should follow them in silence so that we would not be detained at the airports as we were once.)
Interestingly the year that I received my citizenship papers I was stopped in Canada. My parents left Detroit for the warmer Los Angeles climate and I returned to Detroit to get my books. I passed into Canada at Windsor and planned to travel through Canada to Buffalo and then to Boston. The car was packed with books. The shock absorbers had to do double duty. I was asked to get out of the car and then the border officers took all of my books out of the car and carefully inspected every box and then the entire car. After about four hours they told me that I could continue my trip. Politely I asked them why they searched the car. They told me that they were looking for drugs and they thought that I had stashed some in my books or in other parts of the car. Therefore, I was considered a potential drug smuggler.
After I was a good number of miles from the border, I started to laugh because they thought that I was a smuggler. The smuggler in our family was not me – it was my sister. The summer when I took my books to seminary, she was smuggling Bibles in Eastern Europe. For many years, when I traveled to Eastern Europe I would be introduced in churches as my sister’s brother. They knew her because she was the brave one bringing Bibles to them. She and they knew that for smuggling Bibles she would land in prison if the border guards found the Bibles in their cars.
Carrying ID cards was never a difficult thing for me. Showing the right ID was more of a problem. In our family, my wife is the perfect driver which makes me the profile driver because I get all these tickets and most of them are for speed. (It’s profiling – Europeans are known for driving fast- therefore the police officers find us!). The first month that I arrived in Atlantic Highlands as the pastor of Central Baptist, I was stopped by an officer in front of the church. Talk about being embarrassed! According to the police officer, I drove 10 miles over the speed limit on West Highland coming from another church. I showed him my driver’s license and he says to me, “Do you think that I am stupid!” How do you answer such a question! “No officer, you are not stupid! What did I do?” “You gave me the wrong card!” I look at it and I see that I gave him my Princeton University Library card that was almost identical to the NJ Driver’s license and had my picture on it. He looks to both cards and we both start laughing. “You live over there,” he says! “Yes, I do!” Welcome to Atlantic Highlands.