Wanting to explore the family tree 30 years ago, I started talking to my maternal grandmother’s family in Wisconsin, the Koeneckes. Curiously, every relative I spoke to asked the same odd question, first rattle out of the box: “Did you know your grandmother ran away from home at 18?”
Once a person reaches adulthood, I’m not sure it’s still considered running away from home. But the fact that all my family asked this is an object lesson in the history of our country. Because that grandmother was born in Reedsburg, Wisc., and never learned to speak English until she ran away to attend a two-year teacher’s college in Chicago because she wanted to become part of modern America.
From there she migrated to Detroit and, for at least part of her decade in the Motor City, taught English to Ford’s workers. At the time Henry Ford was pushing his workforce to become both English speakers and American citizens, but not for any nationalistic reason. No, it was because when his factory supervisors distributed new work rules or instructions on how to operate new equipment for the moving assembly line, they had to have those directives translated into dozens of languages. Consequently, each such missive bore the same stern command at the bottom: LEARN ENGLISH.
The logic was obvious; the complexity and cost of communicating with a workforce that spoke so many different languages was keeping the moving assembly line from achieving its potential. So Henry Ford created a company sociological department to teach his workers English and how to budget their new-found incomes, as well as other issues he felt were critical to bringing unskilled laborers into relative middle-class wealth. But while Ford’s first intentions were admirable, that department would evolve into a spy operation; its mission ensured compliance with Ford’s vision of an ideal workforce and family life, and they later dissuaded, often by force, any unionization of his workers.
From there, as the family story goes, my grandparents met at one of Detroit’s weekend dances; Harold had returned from his military duties in Northern Russia during the Great War and was back working as a supervisor at Dodge Main. On that side of the family tree my great grandfather, George C. Laird, born in Brampton, Ontario, simply walked across the border into Michigan in 1867 and studied law —eventually becoming the police court judge in Saginaw. For the record, that makes me the great grandson of an illegal immigrant. Just as my grandparents were leaving Michigan for California the nation was swept up in an anti-immigrant mood; America would severely limit immigration from much of the world starting with the Immigration Act of 1924.
Fast forward to the early Nineties, when one of my commercial customers sent me an OB-Gyn doctor who wanted to lease one of the new Acura NSX sports cars. He lived in Eagle Pass, Texas, and had absolutely perfect credit, but American Honda Finance turned him down because he had over $800,000 in outstanding automobile loans at GMAC. He must have been providing cars for everyone in town. While the NSX lease payment would be higher than with Honda, we had access to GMAC financing through our Chevy store. So I simply reworked the lease and submitted it to GMAC to see how they felt about another car loan for this physician. It was approved immediately.
Of course, that brought up some questions for me. Mainly, how in the world was a baby doctor capable of making the payments on so many automobile loans and other financial obligations while living in a city as small as Eagle Pass? The answer to me seemed obvious: He was birthing American citizens. After all, it was widely known that Eagle Pass was one of Texas’ smaller border cities, with an average income far below the state average; and, while I never could verify my supposition, how else could an OB-Gyn earn that kind of money in such a small and impoverished town?
A few years after that, General Motors’ Silao, Mexico, factory opened and started turning out Suburbans and Tahoes. And numerous stories were published about how the new automotive workforce south of the border was paid so little that many often found it impossible to both afford local rents and provide their families’ other necessities. And soon a local Chevrolet dealership showed me a DCS message from GM; it requested that local dealers inspect any SUVs from Mexico on arrival, looking for any evidence that some in Mexico were using those vehicles as their personal living quarters prior to shipment. The dealer said local GM zone personnel suggested the workforce at Silao left their shifts and simply turned on the AC in the Suburbans, then used them as their living quarters for the night.
I’ve related this story before, here and on air, but recently the former GM supervisor at Silao, now retired and living in Aledo, wrote and said that it never happened. I pointed out that I had personally read that DCS message from GM, to which he replied that no plant worker used those vehicles. The DCS message, he believed, was more likely suggesting that others were using these same vehicles once they were loaded onto railcars — riding inside of them across the border into the U.S.
I have no reason to doubt this gentleman’s story, his facts, or his sincerity in telling it. A few years ago, in fact, numerous individuals published books on the Latin American rail line known as The Beast. In 2013, for example, Oscar Martinez wrote that up to 250,000 would-be immigrants head north each year; fearing not our border patrol, but the cartels along the way. There’s at least two problems with building a longer border wall. First, they still make ladders in Mexico. Second, you can’t build a wall across the tracks and end rail traffic between the U.S. and Mexico. Our economies depend on that movement of goods.
American history is full of contradictory stories. Nativism comes and goes; it was one of the issues behind the Know-Nothing political party of the 1850s. Yet two generations later, my grandmother and many others were doing their best to educate and create solid American citizens out of the wave of immigrants that came here in the late nineteenth century. We forget it was that wave of immigrants who built our railroads and made Detroit the automotive capital of the world. Yet shortly thereafter we reversed course again and passed strict immigration reform.
In fact, according to research published in the book, Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, in early 1931 we actually rounded up and deported somewhere around 1.8 million Hispanics. While some believe that six out of every 10 people deported then were actually American citizens who simply didn’t have their birth certificates on them when arrested. In 2006 California officially apologized for the Great Depression deportations of citizens; seven years later, the state passed a law making the teaching of that hidden bit of American history mandatory in all public schools.
In my own family’s history one grandparent taught English to Detroit’s foreigners while the other one supervised them. We also had one law-breaking Canadian simply walk across the border into Michigan — and then pass judgment on others for breaking other U.S. laws. Many American manufacturers took their factories south, including auto parts and auto assembly plants, not only to save in labor costs but also to industrialize parts of Mexico; this provided good employment there, helping to stanch the migrant flow north. If one looks at the raw numbers, it might have had at least some effect.
And in this country our auto industry was built largely on the backs of immigrant laborers and their kids; before that they built our rail lines, which brought our country together in the last half of the nineteenth century and kickstarted our modern economy.
One wonders; if the idea of sailing 3,249 miles over the Atlantic Ocean and fears of Indian raids didn’t keep our ancestors from rushing to America in old, leaking sailing ships, how much of a difference will a 30-foot wall makes to desperate and determined migrants? Then again, today it’s believed over half of all illegal migrants simply fly in and overstay their visas. That’s got to better than riding inside of Suburbans on the rails into America.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org