The Outstater: Immigration, a Testimonial

May 31, 2013

A few hours on one of those genealogical web sites can put the immigration debate into sharp personal focus.

I stumbled on her picture, a criminal mug shot actually, while looking for more glamorous ancestry. She was my great-grandmother, a suspected enemy alien.

Wilma Philipina Rosina Haug Bader was required to register as such on June 18, 1918. The order was signed by the 23-year-old manager of the Enemy Alien Registration Section of the Department of Justice, a J. Edgar Hoover. She was among an estimated half million German-Americans rounded up at post offices, ordered to carry their registration card at all times and to report any change of address or employment.

About 6,000 immigrants fitting my great-grandmother’s ethnic description were arrested. Thousands more were interrogated and investigated on Hoover’s direction, with more than 2,000 interred for the duration of World War I — unnecessarily and unjustly, some now might argue. (Interestingly, nobody sued for reparation.)

Wilma Philipina was a German-speaking farm wife from Wittenberg, one of more than 5.5 million pioneers from northern Europe settling here between 1820 and 1910. But as suspected enemies go, these folks behaved oddly. In a few generations, they turned the Great Plains into a breadbasket. The historian Paul Johnson credits them with ensuring our young nation’s economic independence, if not its survival.

Nor did my great-grandmother’s life play out subversively. Her son, a Kansas stockman, would be elected the first Democrat sheriff of a county named Republic. Her grandson, a decorated Naval aviator, would be one of the first to land on an aircraft carrier at night. He was featured in Time magazine but the article did not mention his “enemy” ancestry.

Nonetheless, his family’s denigrating record would not be expunged by mere heroism; it is stored forever in Washington, D.C., by the National Archives and Record Administration.

Here is a sample of the questions on my great-grandmother’s affidavit:

For the record, this was not the first member of our family to be identified as an undesirable. Relatives on my mother’s side, the Korffmanns, who were participants in the nation-defining Palatine immigration of the early 1700s, were nominated for exclusion — by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, no less.

A Philadelphia publisher, Ben Franklin, writing about the influx of what he described as “swarthy” German immigrants, asked this pointed question:

“Why should the Palatine (German) boor be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours?”

Boorish though they may have been, the Korffmanns would help supply George Washington at Valley Forge. Several in the immediate family would be listed as patriots in the War of Independence, including one in my direct line, who served willingly, if ignobly, at the Battle of Crooked Billet. His descendants wear the pins of the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

So, all of that considered, do I favor open immigration?

Enthusiastically, on one condition — that the same expectations hold for immigrants today as held for the Baders and Korffmanns, that they are free to both succeed and fail.

Immigration policy once was simple in that regard — at least before coming within the purview of my generation and its strange mix of solipsism and narcissism. The border was assumed; it marked where the American exception began (liberty, individual responsibility) and where the historical default ended (tyranny, envy, dependence).

And for most of our history, minimal paperwork was needed — certainly not 1,500 pages of new congressional legislation. Immigrants pretty much walked into America and went to work. The immigrant — even the unregistered, unnaturalized alien — was equal in opportunity to the established citizen. Each was responsible for his own fortune in a free market for labor, brains and skill.

And this is the important point: The immigrant, having the advantage of recent experience with that worldly default setting, the one that prevails everywhere outside our borders, relished the freedom and the competition. He excelled — Ben Franklin’s prejudice be damned.

The great many not only adapted but contributed to the American experiment in limited government, and did so heroically day in and day out. Others, though, less independent or less resolute, returned to whence they came. Failure and intransigence, please know, are options in a free society.

That has changed — turned inside out, some believe. The immigrant still is equal but in a bad way. Subsidies, supra-legal considerations and social contortions prop up the unproductive citizen and the undocumented foreign national alike, including those who mean to destroy American society rather than join it — enemies truly.

Thus does immigration become invasion, ruin become riot (see Sweden). And thus does political cowardice in Washington corrupt good intentions everywhere else. The problem, great-grandmother Bader might tell you, is not our borders but what has become of those inside them.

Craig Ladwig

Great-grandmother Wilma Philipina Rosina Haug Bader’s registration affidavit under the Alien Enemies Act, 1917-1918:


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