An Immigrant Story

Long before Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet fogged up the window of a car in storage on the Titanic in the movie of the same name — thus popularizing the long-ago saga for today’s generation — my grandfather, at every opportunity, would tell us how near he was to actually boarding the doomed vessel in April 1912.

The story is that, at age 16, he was left in Ireland to finish school while the rest of the family immigrated to the United States.

He was to finish in June of that year, but the end came more quickly when he was kicked out of Gaelic class in early April. So he bought a ticket on the Titanic, the next ship headed here. (This is a true story, though he never produced the actual ticket.)

A relative subsequently intervened on my grandfather’s behalf to have him re-admitted to class. He ended up arriving at Ellis Island on July 4, 1912, on the S.S. Franconia. He never left the country once during the ensuing 72 years of his life. He had a real love for this country and the life he was able to have here. As a legal United States citizen, he worked for Illinois Bell from 1912 to 1962 and was able to retire quite comfortably on a pension and money he saved.

As I monitor the debate about finding a proper solution to the vast number of people who immigrate illegally to this country, I can fully appreciate that I am not so far removed from their plight. In 1912, immigration was wide open. Today, we allow about 1 million legal immigrants to the United States, but there are another 12 million who live here illegally. Many of them thrive here, working all types of jobs that need doing, including residential construction.

As elected officials and government agencies work through possible ways to put some of that group of 12 million on a path toward citizenship, remodelers and contractors must look out for what is best for their business, hiring only those workers with proper documentation and keeping good records for all employees. Our story on page 20, “The Immigration Puzzle” by Ken Betz goes a long way toward helping remodelers fully understand their legal requirements regardless of the status of the ever-changing government enforcement schemes.

Ultimately, a good solution will be found — and should be found — that will allow many of our best and brightest workers to become citizens and live their lives above board.